At Port Hardy, on the north tip of Vancouver Island, we take the Inside Passage ferry to Prince Rupert. This waterway is a northern jewel and a mainstay transportation linkage. A route still travelled by relatively few, its remote and sheltered waters teem with marine life. Thousands of islands extend into an almost infinite wilderness of rugged coastlines, reaches and passes. Snow-capped mountains rise from deep, forested valleys and waterfalls plunge into the ocean. This cruise sets the tone by introducing us to one of the last true wilderness regions of North America.
From Prince Rupert, we continue the wilderness experience as far north as Hyder, Alaska, travelling lightly over gravel, paved and mountain roads, encountering isolated communities, always exploring. On highways, back roads and in parks, we bear witness to tremendous wildlife viewing opportunities including grizzly bear, moose, wolves, and dozens of species of birds. We get up close and personal to two glaciers, stretch your legs on a mountain trail and have the opportunity to get 'hyderized". We promise you’ll see sights and live experiences that evade most first time visitors.
During the course of this tour, we stay in mainly small scale, locally owned accommodation and frequent local shops for meals, supplies and crafts. These practices facilitate a high degree of contact with locals and ensures that the economic development our business brings goes directly to local businesses and communities. We know many locals and artists by name.
Various First Nations have long inhabited northwest BC area and to this day they make up a considerable percentage of permanent residents; as you’ll see, Aboriginal stories, ceremonies and traditions are woven into the fabric of northern living. From our start point of Vancouver Island, we visit a continuum of First Nations places, including cultural centres, museums, and shops. We also visit a number of First Nation villages including the isolated communities of Kispiox and Gitanyow.
Day 1: Campbell River, BC.
After a 9:00 am departure from downtown Victoria, we head first to a park favoured by locals for its meandering trails through towering Douglas fir trees as old as 500 years. As we stretch our legs in this virtually untouched Eco-system, we relish the silence of this forest and its earthy, fragrant scent.
After rejoining the highway, we begin our winding journey up the east coast of Vancouver Island. As we pass though Goldstream Provincial Park, the highway gains in elevation and we are offered commanding views of the Saanich Peninsula, Salt Spring Island and, on a clear day, the Cascade Mountains in Washington State. We pull off at the Koksilah River for a short walk to view one of the largest wood trestle bridges in existence. As we venture out on this 44 meter high bridge, now part of the trans-Canada trail, your guide will discuss the history of the forest industry on Vancouver Island.
It would be a cardinal sin to pass through the Cowichan Valley, known as the ‘Warmland”, without taking stock of at least one local winery. The Cowichan's long growing season and mild ocean-influenced winters have enabled it to be a prominent agricultural area on Vancouver Island. As we’ll see (and taste!) during our visit to an award winning winery, wine grapes are the latest crop. Lunch is at a seaside village in a local diner acclaimed for having the best fish and chips outside the UK.
After leaving the Cowichan Valley, we turn off onto the old Island Highway to wind our way along the shoreline and past coastal villages until we reach Campbell River (pop. 30,000), known as the ‘Salmon Capital of the World’. Our hotel is centrally located and enables easy access to downtown shops, the marina and ocean walkways. Looking east, one can see BC’s Coastal Mountains towering over the ocean.
Day 2: Port McNeill.
Before we leave Campbell River, we stop at a First Nations site that features totems. Here your guide will speak in more detail about the history of BC First Nations and demonstrate totem interpretation. As we cross the Campbell River Bridge, we leave 95 percent of the population of Vancouver Island behind as we begin our drive inland, heading further north. Here the highway narrows to mainly single lane as we enter the Nimpkish Valley, home to Roosevelt elk, whitetail deer and black bear. For the next two hours we are on a winding wilderness highway, passing by only two villages. Lakes, mountains and forests dominate the landscape.
After turning off the highway, we take a secondary road to Telegraph Cove. We pass by a log sorting plant and will hopefully see one of the last log trains in operation today. We arrive at Telegraph Cove (pop. 20) by mid- afternoon, once the northern terminus of a telegraph line that began in Campbell River and stretched from tree to tree along Vancouver Island's east coast. Telegraph Cove is one of the last boardwalk communities of Vancouver Island.
Historical information boards along the boardwalk tell the story of this quaint and historical cove. At the end of the boardwalk is one of Canada’s most renowned whale watching companies – Stubb’s Whale Watching, as well as the Whale Interpretive Centre and Bones Project.
On this afternoon, group members have several options:
Whale watching: From Telegraph Cove, passengers can embark on a large, covered boat for a 3 1/2 hour whale watching trip in search of orcas and other whales with Stubbs Island Whale Watching ($94). Tour to Alert Bay: Located on Cormorant Island, this village of 1100 people has a vibrant First Nations culture. This 6 hour tour includes a return voyage on a coastal ferry, a tour of the Cormorant Island and its totems, entrance to the U’Mista Cultural Centre and lunch. We’ll also have time to peruse local shops that sell original First Nations art ($104). Port McNeill: Those opting out of both tours can check into their hotel early and enjoy some free time on their own in the town of Port McNeil.
Day 3: Prince Rupert, B.C.
This morning we embark on our 15 hour voyage up the Inside Passage. Everyone needs to be packed and down by the tour bus by 5:00 am. We arrive at the BC Ferry terminal at 5:40 am where we undergo a security check before boarding. As the ship departs the harbour at 7:30 am we’re already on our way upstairs to our reserved seats in the dining room, craving our favourite hot beverage. A sumptuous breakfast buffet awaits with several varieties of eggs, meats, seafood, cheeses, breads, pastries and juice. We take time to linger over breakfast while watching the gently rolling wilderness wake up to the day.
About 1500 kilometers in length, the Inside Passage starts in Puget Sound in Washington State and extends north along the British Columbia coastline to the Alaska Panhandle. The first 500 kilometers of the Inside Passage are sheltered by Vancouver Island. Ours is the middle portion and is the most rugged and isolated section of the Inside Passage.
Shortly after leaving Port Hardy, on the north tip of Vancouver Island, we cross the open ocean and round Cape Caution to the Central Coast Archipelago. This feature marks the beginning of the sheltered route north to Prince Rupert. We pass through a pristine marine wilderness where the hand of man appears sporadically. In this land no roads connect the settlements we see.
Built in Germany in 2009, the Northern Expedition harnesses 9000 horsepower for an average cruising speed of 18 knots. This 150 meter ship offers 55 staterooms and accommodates 638 passengers and crew and 130 vehicles. Spacious passenger areas such as the Canoe Cafe, Vista Restaurant and the Raven and Aurora Lounges complement what is a unique sailing experience. This is not a jammed cruise ship where one competes for space and amenities!
Along the way, the captain and crew provide narrative accounts of local sights, including wildlife sightings which are common on this route. Gray and humpback whales, orcas, porpoises, dolphins seals, and black bears and many species of birds call this land home.
One of the first sights is the abandoned cannery village of Namu, meaning place of high winds, or whirlwinds. Dating from when the cannery was first established in 1893, Namu is the oldest settlement on BC’s west coast. Excavations have unearthed artifacts dating back 10,000 years. Our first glimpse of real civilization is Bella Bella. With a population of 1,400, this is the largest settlement on the central coast and is home to the Heiltsuk First Nations.
At mid point in our journey we sail close to the manned Boat Bluff Light Station. Built in 1897, Boat Bluff marks the northbound entrance to the narrow Sarah Passage and its light can be seen for 20 miles. Here, the coastline is so rugged that any boat would be hard-pressed to find a welcoming landing site.
Just over halfway to Prince Rupert, our chances of seeing bears increase as we approach Princess Royal Island, the favourite haunt of the elusive Kermode, or Spirit Bear. Its white colour is the result of a single recessive gene carried by both parents. Wildlife biologists believe the high concentration of Spirit bears on Princess Royal Island is because they are geographically isolated from other black bear populations. Many of the Kitasoo/Xaixais people believe the Spirit bears hold super-natural powers. Hence, the name Spirit bear - one that suits its mythical-like presence. Next is the Khutzeymateen Grizzly Bear Sanctuary, and we bring out our binoculars again, hoping to see a grizzly or two lingering around the river estuaries.
About ten hours into our voyage we encounter abandoned Swanson Bay, established in 1909 as one of the first sulfite pulp mills on the coast. Next is Butedale, founded as a cannery and abandoned in the 1950’s. Then, four hours from Prince Rupert, at about dinner time, we enter Grenville Chanel, the most spectacular channel in the Inside Passage. Mountains ranging from 1500 to 3500 feet surround us as we enter this 70 kilometer long channel, the narrowest portion of which is a mere 1400 feet wide.
Our wilderness cruise comes to a close when we dock in Prince Rupert, “The City of Rainbows” (pop. 15,000), by 10:30 pm. For most of the summer dusk will now be upon us, or will have shortly arrived – as we are now further north the sun takes longer to wane. Our ocean view hotel is a 10 minute drive away.
Day 4: Prince Rupert, B.C.
Today is a free day to relax or journey into the wilderness to see wildlife. Your driver/guide will be pleased to assist you to make arrangements for the following excursions
1. Float plane and zodiac tour to the Khutzeymateen $477.00 pp (3 hours). This excursion departs Prince Rupert by floatplane for a scenic ride to bear country. The 30 minute flight spirits you into deep wilderness: over rugged mountains, remote valleys, cirque lakes in high alpine meadows and steeped walled fjords. Stepping off the plane you’ll then board a covered boat for a two hour exploration into the wilderness setting of the protected waters of the Khutzyemateen Inlet. This excursion books out early and should be booked far in advance, preferably at the same time as making this tour booking.
2. Grizzly Bear Tours – $225 pp (6 hours). Travel by large covered and heated catamaran boat 2-3 hours north of Prince Rupert. On board your tour guide and naturalist will provide a narration of the areas’ geography, history and culture. Once at the Khutzeymateen Grizzly Bear Sanctuary we spend 2-3 hours touring the area looking for bears. A delicious deli lunch is included on this tour. Enroute to or from the Khutzeymateen we stop for other wildlife including Gray and Orca Whales.
3. Marine and Whale watching tours $150.00 (4 hours). Humpback, Gray, Orca and Minke Whales are seen at various times from the Spring to the Fall along the coast of British Columbia. On this tour passengers travel by boat past the islands and islets that surround Prince Rupert. Colonies of sea lions, otters, bald eagles, seals and porpoises as well as large bird colonies are often seen year round on each tour.
4. Fishing. Salmon and halibut fishing charter rates begin at $100 per hour and include all gear. The skipper will arrange for your catch to be smoked and shipped to your home. Most charter boats accommodate up to four people.
Time permitting we’ll take a driving tour of Prince Rupert’s ‘Old Town’, including the historic totem poles of the Haida and Tsimshian. Your driver/guide will also point out several seafood restaurants near the harbour. To accommodate those who have elected to take the float plan tour into the Khutzeymateen Grizzly Bear Sanctuary, our first stop will be Prince Rupert’s float plane base.
Day 5: Terrace, B.C.
Ten minutes from Prince Rupert lies the trailhead to the Butze Rapids Trail, a popular local hike. Here the group has the option to hike part or all of this five kilometer chip and boardwalk trail that meanders through old growth forest, and across bogs, wetlands and swamps carpeted with moss and stunted pines. Along the way, interpretative signs and maps provide insight into flora and fauna and local wildlife. About two kilometers down the trail is a viewing platform that overlooks a set of reversing rapids.
Next we divert to a secondary road to visit the North Pacific Cannery Village, a National Historic Site. This coastal area has been home to a number of fish canneries for over 100 years. The North Pacific Cannery Village Museum seeks to preserve this aspect of the area’s history through its restoration of a cannery built in 1899. We step back in time as we explore a village resting on stilts and joined by boardwalks. As we’ll see during a guided tour, a number of machines have been restored to full operation. Other museum displays include life in the canneries and historical methods of fishing and processing.
Back on the Yellowhead Highway, we follow the mighty Skeena River as it winds its way to the town of Terrace. The Skeena is North America’s largest un-dammed river boasting a length of 610 kilometers - the second longest river in British Columbia. Terrace’s population of 12,000 people is out numbered in the summer months by up to 5 million spawning salmon returning to the Skeena River each year. Not far from Terrace we take a short trip across a river to a remote village inhabited by a few hardy individuals.
Day 6. Stewart, B.C. / Hyder AK.
Now east of Terrace, we turn north to start the Stewart Cassiar Highway. This alternative road to Alaska will take us into some of the North’s most spectacular glacial and mountain scenery.
Enroute we visit the First Nation’s Village of Kitwanga and Gitanyow. These villages have been inhabited for thousands of years and have been the subject of a number of Emily Carrs’ and Roy Henry Vickers’ famous paintings. At these places your driver/guide will relate the history about local First Nations and describe the meaning of a number of these totems.
Along this highway we’ll keep our eyes out for wildlife, as bears, moose and wolves often frequent this area. As we turn towards the coast again at Meziadan Junction we’ll climb over Bear Pass in the Coastal Mountain Range and come face to face with the Bear Glacier, one of the few blue glaciers in the world. We then drop down to the coast and the town of Stewart at the head of the Portland Canal.
After we check into our historic inn, we’ll take a walking tour of the once thriving mining town of Stewart. After Stewart we cross the border around the corner and step back into the wild west settlement of Hyder Alaska, known as the friendliest ghost town in Alaska!
In the evening passengers can enjoy a little refreshment from one of several small bars. A key attraction for some is the local 150 proof 'Everclear' which, if consumed in one shot, enables one to claim they have been “Hyderized”.
Day 7: Stewart, B.C. / Hyder AK.
The Fish Creek Wildlife Observation Site in the Salmon River Valley is a wondrous place. From mid-July to September, grizzly and black bears are generally easily observed as they fish for spawning chum and pink salmon in the clear shallow waters of Fish Creek and Marx Creek. Everyone will thrill to the sight of wild bears frolicking and fishing in their natural habitat that is this beautiful glacial river valley.
Other wildlife frequently seen include nesting Canada Geese, harlequin ducks, common mergansers, mink, beaver, bald eagles, and a wide variety of songbirds.
After our visit to Fish Creek, drive along the Salmon River Valley and follow the mountain road as it climbs into the Coastal Mountain Range, winding its way through some of the most spectacular scenery in the world. The road cuts into the side of the mountain and offers commanding views of the Salmon Glacier, the fifth largest glacier in the world. We’ll make our way to the Granduc Mine along side the Brenedon Glacier and Summit Lake. As evening falls, we stop at Fish Creek for a second look.
Day 8: Smithers, B.C.
We depart Stewart early in the morning, keeping our eyes peeled for the wildlife that often frequents the sides of the roads at this time of day.
Connecting again with the Yellowhead Highway, we head east to find the historic town of Hazelton and the nearby K’san Historical Village. Located at the confluence of the Bulkley and Skeena River the ancient village of K’san is home to the Gitanmaax People, who have been inhabiting this area for thousands of years.
Here, on the banks of the Skeena River, a replica of the once ancient village has been recreated with seven big houses, poles, smoke houses and caches. From K’san we head to the historical village of Hazelton, once an important commercial terminal for Sternwheelers plying the waters of the Skeena. Now a sleepy, quaint town with restored historic buildings, Hazelton is a fun stop to take lunch and to stretch our legs.
We’ll return to our mini- coach and head off a little further into the wilderness to the First Nations’ Village of Kispiox, home of the Gitskan People. The village is located at the confluence of the Kispiox and Skeena River and is home to some of the oldest totem poles in the world.
After Kispiox we drive to Smithers in the Bulckley Valley. Set against the backdrop of Hudson Bay Mountain to the west and the Babine Mountain range to the east, this town of 6,000 is one of the largest places we’ve seen in days! For its size, Smithers offers a good selection of restaurants, shops, as well as an art gallery and museum.
Day 9: Fly out.
After breakfast, and time permitting, passengers will have time to do some last minute shopping before being shuttled to Smithers Airport for their two hour flight to Vancouver Airport.
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Canada British Columbia Alaska Local Culture Sightseeing Cultural Journey