Port Alberni -- Gateway to Pacific Rim N. P.

Trip Start Apr 03, 2006
Trip End Jun 30, 2006

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Sunday, May 21, 2006

Port Alberni - Gateway to the Pacific Rim

Victoria Day Weekend 2006-06-02

Having the luxury of a long weekend gave us enough time to focus our attention on the Pacific Rim region of Vancouver Island.

There are two major highways out of Victoria.

Just blocks from our residence, in the James Bay Village section of Victoria, one finds a sign splitting traffic into Highway 1 (The Trans Canada Highway) or Highway 17.

Highway 17 goes up the Saanich Peninsula to end at Swartz Bay which is the ferry terminal to Vancouver.

The Trans-Canada starts just a kilometer south of us on the Strait of Juan de Fuca. There is a "Mile 0" marker put up by the CAA (Canadian Automobile Association) and a statue of Terry Fox placed symbolically 50 meters from the finish.

From here the Trans-Canada goes 100 km north to Nanaimo. After a ferry crossing to Horseshoe Bay (West Vancouver) the road continues for another 7,821 km (4860 mi.) to St. John's, Newfoundland.

Our path today took us 80 km. north on the Trans Canada Highway past Duncan to Nanaimo. From there, we continued along Route 19 to Parksville where we took Highway 6 to our first destination --Port Alberni. It is a town of 19,000 located in the Alberni Valley at the head of Alberni Inlet on the Somass River.

Four hours and 200 km later (we must have taken our time) we arrived at the tourist office on the outskirts of Port Alberni.

A large sign proudly declares the town as the Salmon Fishing Capital of the World and each Labour Day Weekend (Sept. 1-40) there is a Salmon Festival which takes place here. All five species of salmon are abundant in the waters surrounding this town, (www.pasalmonfestival.com)

"Four Cool Attractions in One Big Day" is another sign that catches one's attention. It is an attempt to encourage tourists, on their way to the Pacific Rim, to spend at least a day and hopefully a night in this industrial town.

As part of the "Big Day" promotion, for the price of one ticket you are invited to visit the Alberni Valley Museum, check out the Maritime Discovery Center, take a ride on the Alberni Pacific Railway and peruse the McLean Mill which is a national historic site.
The museum is open year-round whereas the other attractions are seasonal.

Another sign declares Port Alberni as "The Gateway to the Pacific Rim" and that, of course, was the reason we were here.

Port Alberni is very much a blue-collar town and during its heyday, it ranked as number two in average income just behind Oshawa (automobile industry). Its main industries are mining, logging, milling and tourism. Globalization has had its impact here with all three industries being scaled back from their former dominant positions. In the latest survey of average income Albany was not in the top ten.

The nicest part of the city is the Harbour Quay area at the foot of Argyle Street, where much money was spent to create a small enclave of tourist friendly boutiques and restaurants as well as a water front park. It is an interesting area because of its proximity to beautiful Alberni Inlet, the fishing port, the pleasure boat port as well as the Tourist Services of the Lady Rose.

A look at the map reveals the most spectacular aspect of Port Alberni and that is its claim to being a west coast port despite the fact that it is closer to the east coast of Vancouver Island than the west.

This is due to the spectacular fjord known as Alberni Inlet which is an off-shoot of Barkley Sound. Therefore, Port Alberni, about 40 km. from the Pacific Rim, is far removed from the storms of the Pacific and provides a vital natural harbour important for all the industries of this part of Vancouver Island.

Since my earliest visit to this region on a bike tour to Tofino in 1996, I have been aware of the Broken Group Islands at the mouth of Barkley Sound as a prime sea kayaking paradise. It was my intent some day to return to this region for a sea kayaking adventure. At the time I remember being disappointed that even out in the islands of Barkley Sound one had to be on the lookout for black bears as they are capable of swimming to get to islands.

One of the gateways to the Pacific Rim is in the form of two, small, older motor vessels known as the Lady Rose and the Francis Barkley. They regularly ply the waters between Port Alberni, Bamfield and Ucluelet - two small communities at either side of the mouth of Barkley Sound.

The vessels are used by kayakers to get access to the archipelago of the Broken Group Island as there is no problem storing the kayaks aboard the ships. One rendez-vous point is Sechart - Whaling Station Lodge which offers the comforts of home in a wilderness setting and easy access to the surrounding islands.

The Broken Group Islands is one part of Pacific Rim National Park.

Another group that uses this vital service is the many hikers that complete the West Coast Trail which is another part of Pacific Rim National Park. This trail attracts hikers from all over the world and is usually completed in four to five days of hiking between Port Renfrew in the south and Bamfield in the north.

What a pleasure to end a long, hard hike with a voyage up Barkley Sound to Port Alberni in the relative comfort of the Lady Rose or Francis Barkley surrounded by other hikers reveling in the stories of their just completed adventures.

In 1996, on my bike trip, I took the Lady Rose from Ecluelet to Port Alberni, and it was a neat experience back then, not to mention the by-passing of a very strenuous peddle back by land route. I am reminded also of the only time in my many bike tours, I hitched a ride for myself and the bike on a transport truck from Port Alberni to Nanaimo as I would have been late getting back to Vancouver in time for my return flight to Ottawa.

An exhibit at Harbour Quay highlights the Banfield Life Boat. There is nothing more vital to the survival of mariners in times of need than the courageous work of the men who put their lives on the line to save others.

A mural, one of 18 around town, depicts the steamship Valencia which sunk in the area in 1906 with the loss of 126 passengers and crew. In 1907 this led to the building of the West Coast Trail as a marine rescue trail.

Also in the area of Harbour Quay is a "must-stop" at the Cod-Father Fish Market for some delicious smoked salmon. If there is one disappointment I have had here on the West Coast it would be lack of access to smoked salmon. One would think that there would be a lot of little kiosks selling smoked salmon as a snack. Instead, one has to go to the local supermarket or fish monger just like in Ottawa to get some smoked salmon.

Since the "Four Cool Attractions in One Big Day!" were not in season yet, it was time to head west and drive towards the spectacular Pacific Rim and Tofino.

This would take us through the third part of Pacific Rim National Park - Long Beach.

As a side bar, in view of recent events in Indonesia, I have to note, that on March 27, 1964, as a result of an earthquake in Anchorage, Alaska, Port Alberni was devastated by a three meter tidal wave that destroyed everything in its path. Despite the major damage inflicted during the night nobody drowned or was seriously injured.
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