David Zaitz

This British Columbia beauty has beenundiscovered ― until now

Steven R. Lorton,  – May 31, 2005

A voyage to Prince Rupert

Shaun Stevenson is standing on a bluff above Prince Rupert, British Columbia. The cobalt waters of the Inside Passage stretch below. To the north and south, mountains rise from the water, their steep slopes rain-forest green, then erupting with jagged rock above the timberline. The 14,000-person town itself harbors a stolid brick courthouse, a huddle of shops along Cow Bay, and the new $12 million cruise-ship dock, which Stevenson―the director of business development for Prince Rupert’s port―helped bring here.

“We’re going to do this right,” Stevenson insists. “Prince Rupert will not become a carnival town. No, we’re adamant about preserving what we have.”

It may seem strange that a city so far north that its nearest well-known neighbor is Ketchikan, Alaska, has become a hot ticket. But that’s happening. This summer, 75,000 tourists and 20,000 crew are expected to disembark in Prince Rupert. They’ll find a city that is a stirring blend of cultures―Tsimshian, British, and, of course, Canadian― in a setting that ranks among the most beautiful places on earth. 

The city that grew along Cow Bay

Prince Rupert is connected to the rest of the world. It’s the western terminus of the Canadian National Railroad, the northern end of the BC Ferries system, a destination on the Alaska Marine Highway System from Ketchikan, and now a stop for cruise ships. You can drive from here to the interior B.C. town of Prince George, 450 miles to the east, and then connect to Alaska via the Alaska Highway or to Vancouver following roads that wind through the Fraser River valley and the Cariboo-Chilcotin region.

Still, Prince Rupert is a long way from most anywhere, which may account for the fact that in some ways it seems to exist in its own time zone: part past, part present. Prince Rupert sits on Kaien Island, near the mouth of the Skeena River. The city was planned and promoted in the early 20th century by railroad tycoon Charles Hays, who staged a contest to come up with a name for the new town: Miss Eleanor Macdonald of Winnipeg earned $250 for her suggestion of naming the settlement after the first governor of Hudson’s Bay Company. Alas, Hays then proceeded to sink with the Titanic in 1912 without ever witnessing the completion of his dreams. Today downtown Prince Rupert is a mix of shingled churches and homes, totem poles, and an art deco-era city hall that has exchanged coastal native motifs for the Egyptian designs more commonly seen in the period.

Prince Rupert’s once-raffish working waterfront along Cow Bay is now a set of impeccably preserved wooden buildings filled with high-quality art, crafts, and eateries. With offerings like fish chowder, sun-dried-tomato quiche, and spectacular desserts on a changing menu inspired by fresh ingredients, the Cow Bay Café is probably the best dining spot in town. The bay’s name dates from the early 1900s, when a boatload of dairy cattle were brought to Prince Rupert. There was no dock where they could unload the livestock, so sailors pushed the cows into the water, leaving them to swim their way to shore.

Another waterfront landmark lies 13 miles southeast of town, at the North Pacific Historic Fishing Village. Now a Canadian National Historic Site, the cannery operated continuously from 1889 to 1968, processing salmon for markets all over North America and Europe. In addition to the old timbered processing facilities, you can visit the cottages of the workers, the general store, and the company office, all strung along boardwalks above the tidal water. 

A different view of the world
The region’s original inhabitants are the Tsimshian, and one good way to learn about their culture is to take a Seashore Charters tour out to Pike Island. Here, in the lush wilderness, you’ll see an ancient village site, a recreated longhouse, and petroglyphs.

But the Tsimshian are very much a contemporary presence too. Up in the Carving Shed, which is owned by the Museum of Northern British Columbia, Luke Parnell is working on a cedar mask―and, when I ask, is willing to talk about where his inspirations come from. “They are based on myth and history,” he tells me. “But our art is constantly evolving.”

Down at the museum itself, curator Susan Marsden waits as I study a beautifully unsettling 20th-century Haida mask in the local slate known as argillite, depicting the Volcano Woman spirit. Neighbors of the Tsimshian, the Haida live on the Queen Charlotte Islands, across Hecate Strait. I ask again about the source of the images. Marsden expels a thoughtful sigh. “It can’t be articulated in just a few words,” she explains. “It is so vast, so complex, so sophisticated that it must be learned about … experienced.” She pauses. “I would like visitors to go away from the museum with a different view of the world.”

Into the wild
Finally, there is the wilderness of Prince Rupert.

As the boat inches along the boundary of the Khutzeymateen Grizzly Bear Sanctuary, Doug Davis, owner of Prince Rupert Adventure Tours, whispers into the PA system, “At 10 o’clock, you’ll see a grizzly feeding on the sedge grass.” And there she is, almost shoulder-deep in the emerald vegetation, a grand old matron of the wild in shaggy, rust-colored fur. Suddenly the sedge vibrates. Excitement ripples across the deck and binoculars sweep the beach as two cubs come into sight. Heading back to town, more wildlife: this time, whales that breach on the boat’s port side, so close we can see the barnacles on their skin.

All roads in Prince Rupert lead to the wilderness, but likely the most spectacular is the road to Terrace. The 90-mile drive follows the Skeena River east. From the wide, brackish waters of the mouth, the road cuts through the Coast Range past dozens of waterfalls and rock formations. As the drive progresses east, snowcapped peaks appear in the distance. The unmistakable redolence of conifers fills the chilly air.

At some point, before you’re ready, it’ll be time to leave Prince Rupert. You won’t have used your sunglasses, nor been without your sweater. But you’ll know what summer is all about, at least on the Northwest coast. And like the ships and railcars, the whales and bald eagles, and the Tsimshian spirits, you’ll probably be planning a return.

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