Queen of Prince Rupert

🕔Jun 07, 2006

Six months ago, BC Ferries celebrated 25 years of service to the Queen Charlotte Islands. Although Queen Charlotte mayor Carol Kulesha and Chief Skidegate Dempsey Collinson attended the party at the ferry docks that November morning, there was one very important guest missing.

The Queen of Prince Rupert, a ship that made her first voyage to the islands on November 16, 1980, had been delayed by bad weather. She would be in later that day, long after the cake and coffee were gone.

And so it goes. Islanders are no strangers to service disruptions, lack of fresh vegetables, and late mail. But when the QPR’s sister ship on the northern routes, the Queen of the North, sank on March 22, 2006, the isolation of the archipelago was taken to a new level.

The Queen of Prince Rupert was in dry dock for its yearly refit at the time, so a month went by with no passenger service. Commercial products were quickly shipped over by barge, but at least 23 island vehicles were stranded on the mainland meaning some families had to take taxis to access the restocked shelves.

This summer, sailings will be cut in half as BC Ferries attempts to cover two northern routes with one vessel—the smaller and slower at that. The islands’ tourist trade will be affected, and so will be the mobility of locals trying to in the mid-1970stravel on- and off-island.

But switch to another time and remember: yes, there was life before the ferry. (In fact, some islanders didn’t want the ferry service in the first place…but that’s a whole different story.)

Judy Perry of Tlell remembers coming to the islands on the ferry run by Northland Navigation in 1974. “It was really festive on there. It was like a big party,” she said. “The ship used to arrive in Masset, and when people heard the whistle blow it was a cause for celebration. Everyone would go down to meet the vessel.”

Perry remembers how expensive it was to have a car slung by crane into the hold of the freighter, not to mention the dangers. If it was windy, cars sometimes fell off the sling onto the docks, or if the seas were rough, the vehicles could smash into each other in the hold.

There were far fewer cars on the islands then, she says, but a lot more people on the road. “A lot more people hitchhiked. You could always get a ride,” she said.

With only one scheduled freighter a week, the store shelves were really empty if it didn’t come. But people preserved more food in those days, and cases of canned salmon and deer meat were staples for islanders, she says.

Another person remembers there being two passenger-carrying Northland freighters. The smaller of the two was really just a freighter, but would take up to eight passengers, who would sit in the crew’s mess for the seven-hour sailing. The passengers were free to eat all they cared to from the food supplied for the crew, at no extra cost, while chatting with crew members on their breaks.

The other freighter was larger and carried more passengers, as well as vehicles. There were passenger lounges and staterooms. There was also a dining room where breakfast, lunch and dinner were served; the cost of meals was included in the price of passage.

Before the Northland freighter, a variety of steamships traveled the waters between Prince Rupert and the islands. Old-timers remember the trip as an elegant affair, with great food and real silverware in the dining rooms of vessels like the steel-hulled S.S. Prince Charles.

It was not a fast trip, as the boat visited some 14 canneries and many logging camps along the way, providing supplies and other cargo to loggers, ranchers, cannery workers and prospectors. And more than once, reports Kathleen Dalzell in The Queen Charlotte Islands Vol. I, she was photographed high and dry on the sandbars near Masset.

In between the steamships, the freighters and the ferry there have been years when the islands had no direct passenger service to the mainland. There are rumours of men rowing the oft-dangerous waters of Hecate Strait for beer. Some people would rather fly, while others prefer to just remain on the islands, enjoying the bounty of their chosen home.

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Suggested pull quote:
“There are rumours of men rowing across Hecate Strait for beer.”

And now for a completely different perspective

By Heather Ramsay heather@northword.ca

Long before the Queen of the North was ripped open on Gil Island, the Queen Charlotte Chamber of Commerce had been planning a unique engagement. The ad campaign in the local newspaper suggested a meeting between royals might lead to a long-term union.

There are few maps that show the Queen Charlotte Islands and Alaska’s Prince of Wales Island together, and but for the strong family ties between the Alaskan and Canadian Haida communities, there is little contact between two parallel worlds which are only 40 miles apart by sea.

Residents share similar lifestyles in fishing, forestry, tourism and more, but the most exciting aspect of the visit by a delegation from Prince of Wales Island, that came to Haida Gwaii in April, was a whole new vision of transportation.

When industrial economist Kent Miller got involved, Prince of Wales Island was being served sporadically by the Alaska State Ferries. In summer the ferry came several times a week, but in winter it was down to several times a month, and never reliable.

In January, the year before the Inter-Island Ferry System started, the 4,000 people on Prince of Wales Island didn’t see a ferry for two weeks. When it did arrive, it came in the middle of the night.

The City of Craig decided that was enough. In 1997, the council went on the road and organized community meetings all over Southeast Alaska to find out what the local service priorities were.

What they were told was probably not surprising to anyone but the Alaska Marine Highway system, which runs from Bellingham, Washington to the Aleutian Islands. Southeast Alaskans wanted daily service to Ketchikan in the winter and twice-daily in summer.

When the state ferry system was unable to provide the service, the islanders went one step further. They decided to provide it themselves.

The first ferry ran in 2002, and now Alaska’s Inter-island Ferry System boasts two ferries—the M/V Prince of Wales and the M/V Stikine—which carry passengers and vehicles between Petersburg, Wrangell and communities on Prince of Wales Island. The boats carry 170 passengers and 30 standard automobiles, and were built in Anacortes, Washington at a cost of $30 million (US).

The system, owned by a municipal authority, is now paying its operating costs from the fare box. Prince of Wales is also served by a barge for commercial traffic, which Miller thinks is a good model for the Queen Charlottes. A ferry can complement the service by moving freight and passengers daily, often important for time-sensitive or unexpected orders.

The possibility of an island-run system is not a quick fix. Eight years passed between the first serious discussions about ferry service on Prince of Wales and the start of the new service. “It is a quantum leap between taking on the demand for more service from the provincial and federal governments and taking on an entrepreneurial role,” says Miller.

BC communities are lucky to have BC Ferries, he continues, which he considers a dedicated public service doing a stellar job. “They may provide a nice alternative,” he says. But where the service should go in the future is something the communities should decide.

“Small communities need to start thinking of themselves as the hub, with the larger community as the spoke, instead of the other way around,” he said.