The 'Bubble' carriage

Prince Rupert to Jasper

One of many freight trains
One of many freight trains

The train from Prince Rupert to Jasper takes two days and has an overnight stay in Prince George as it is so slow. I had opted for this as it was a a lot cheaper than the more famous Rocky Mountaineer. It was also more of an adventure. I had read it stopped often for freight trains and there could be delays. This was an understatement! A freight company owns the track and ViaRail lease it from them. Freight always gets priority and does not run to a schedule. The trains can be over 200 carriages long (Robyn counted) and take several minutes to pass.

In theory, it left at 8am. We arrived early as we weren’t sure if, like the ferries, we would have to queue for a boarding pass. We didn’t. There were several people on board we recognised from the bus to Port Hardy and the ferry. We were obviously all following the same route. We found two seats in a group of four, and the conductor warned us we would have to move if a family came on board. Over the next two days, he alternated between being friendly and being very grumpy but always liked talking to Robyn! We upset him in Terrace by moving to better seats when people got off. He had noted those seats were empty and allocated them to someone boarding. He wasn’t happy but forgave us when he saw it was Robyn! We were all given permission to go upstairs to the ‘Bubble’ carriage. He issued orders to limit our time to one hour in the front seat so everyone could have a turn (which was fair enough).

The 'Bubble' carriage
The ‘Bubble’ carriage

Our first stop for freight was immediate. We moved into a siding and waited for 20 minutes. By the end of the trip, everyone joked we could estimate the length of delay by the ‘freebies’ offered; coffee for a short stop (less than an hour) or coffee and snacks if it was longer. Many of the passengers were English, and stoic is our middle name! However, the delays challenged the patience of an Australian who boarded in Prince George. He loudly demanded free beer and cigarettes, which he did not receive, and was going to write letters! We also noted he occupied the front seat in the ‘Bubble’ for longer than the specified hour and was geographically challenged about B.C..

The train at McBride station
The train at McBride station

Over the course of the trip, we talked to most of the people on the train. It wasn’t difficult. There were only two carriages, and they weren’t full. Most people opted for the ‘Bubble’ or the carriage at the back rather than the conventional one.

My first conversation was with a local man travelling with his three-year-old son and baby to Terrace, the first stop. His wife was driving a car and trailer on the road alongside and keeping pace with the train. They owned a Bouncy Castle business and travelled all over the district each weekend. His son loved Thomas the Tank Engine, and they had surprised him with the train trip that morning. According to his dad, he was overjoyed. It wasn’t obvious as the little boy was exceptionally shy. All the passengers waved to his wife as she drove along, waving to her son.

View from the front seat
View from the front seat

We reached Prince George at 11pm, a mere two-and-a-half hours late. We were lucky. Two weeks previously, the train arrived at 4am! No taxis were waiting but the train staff phoned for them and one soon arrived. It ferried passengers one by one to their hotels. It was pouring with rain or we would have walked. At long last it was our turn. The hotel was a welcome sight!

The journey the second day did not start until 9.45am so we had time for breakfast and a trip to the supermarket to replenish supplies beforehand. It wasn’t a leisurely morning, though, as we got up late and were both still tired.

The delays were fewer that day but otherwise it passed much as the day before. We might even have arrived on time if we hadn’t had an hour sitting on the tracks just outside Jasper, which we reached at 8.30pm. We checked into the Jasper Central Hostel (which, over the next two days, impressed me with its efficiency and organisation) and left in search of dinner. The front desk lady recommended The Raven, which was an excellent choice. We shared two starters and had a glass of wine each. It was all delicious.

Derelict building at the Cannery

The delights of Prince Rupert

A gloomy day in Prince Rupert
A gloomy day in Prince Rupert

The next stage of our journey was the train to Jasper from Prince Rupert. It doesn’t operate every day and the next one was at 7.30am the following morning. This was too soon for me! We stayed 3 nights in Prince Rupert and caught the next one instead.

We were slow to get up, and it was after 9am when I went downstairs to make tea. In the kitchen, I chatted to a lady who had just arrived on the ferry from Haida Gwaii. Robyn and I had looked at venturing there but decided it wasn’t feasible. It is on our radar for next time though. The lady grew up on the island and returned to live there as an adult. She loved it. Her father had been killed in a logging accident some years before and she became quite emotional when telling me the story. There was also an older Australian giving advice to two German men planning a visit. I doubted the veracity of some of the information but refrained from comment. It is not my place to correct an Australian about Australia!

Packing crab at Prince Rupert
Packing crab at Prince Rupert

We ambled around town after breakfast. The weather was typical of Prince Rupert which is reputed to have the highest rainfall of any place in Canada. At the Visitor Centre in Cow Bay we got information about the trails. Afterwards, food dominated our thoughts, so we had lunch at Dolly’s, sampling the local fish for which it is known. Whilst waiting for our meals, we studied the trail maps and decided on one to do. Having walked to its start, I remembered the Visitor Centre lady told me it was closed for repair. Robyn was unimpressed with me! There were few alternatives, so we followed the road back along the water and climbed a set of steep steps to the Summit. We admired the limited view and returned to the hostel. It was an unsatisfactory day due to our lack of planning.

In the kitchen the next morning I met a German/Belgian couple who lived in Sheffield and worked at the University there. It was a most entertaining conversation on various topics not least of which was Brexit. They seemed philosophical about what happens as they had many options. A couple from Geelong, Australia, appeared keen to chat. Or rather, he did. She seemed desperate to escape! I was away so long Robyn came in search of her tea. I love the marvel of hostel kitchens. You never know who you will meet!

Mural in Prince Rupert
Mural in Prince Rupert

We had heard about the Saturday market so went to check it out. It was reminiscent of the 70’s with a fair abundance of macrame and knitting. There weren’t many stalls. Or visitors. A stall holder recognised us from the craft shop we had browsed in the previous day and engaged in conversation. She told us she was a relief lighthouse keeper in her spare time but didn’t like the job as it was too isolated and she was very sociable. Her ambition was to live in a house truck so, in her head, she has been planning how she could fit in her furniture. She also loved parties and travelling. In her late sixties (possibly), she was one of life’s “characters”.

Afterwards, we strolled to the Aquatic/Civic Centre to buy day bus passes. It was an unlikely venue for the purchase but you can’t buy them on the buses. The friendly lady behind the counter had plenty of time to talk. We heard about her family whilst keeping one eye on the clock. The bus to Port Edward only went once every two hours. We didn’t want to miss it so I politely made our excuses. The residents of Prince Rupert obviously enjoy chatting to strangers!

Our destination was The North Pacific Cannery on the Skeena river. It is the only one of the fifty built that has been restored. The rest had been destroyed or were in ruins. We had an entertaining tour, given by an informative older lady, who also spoke in French, and a young guide in training, who conducted parts of the tour in English. A younger lad accompanied him and supplied prompts when he forgot his facts. The pair provided entertainment reminiscent of Laurel and Hardy (whom my daughter had never heard of!). It lasted two hours, but we defected towards the end, so we could eat our sandwiches and be ready for the bus when it arrived.

Derelict building at the Cannery
Derelict building at the Cannery

Next up was a hike on the Tall Trees trail. We were both desperate to get out and walk by this stage. However, we had limited time before the next bus back to town and knew it would be marginal. Nothing like being controlled by a bus timetable! Robyn marched onwards and upwards and I trailed behind trying to keep pace. The view from the top was worth it. The mozzies weren’t! We were back at the bus stop with 5 minutes to spare.

That evening we wanted to have dinner at Dolly’s again as we had been so impressed with the meal the day before. However, a tour group was occupying almost the entire restaurant, and the staff dithered and couldn’t decide if they were able to fit us in. The food at our alternative choice bore no comparison but the Vietnamese staff were friendly and efficient. It was a disappointing end to our action packed day.

Canadian flag blowing in the wind

Cruising the Inside Passage

The next day Steve’s dad and his wife picked us up from our Airbnb and took us to a Vietnamese restaurant for an early lunch. Here I had my first encounter with Vietnamese coffee. How have I survived all these years without trying Vietnamese coffee? The food was good too.

Afterwards, Paul showed us the sights of Nanaimo waterfront before dropping us off at Steve’s brother’s house. We had a very pleasant evening chatting and eating before an early night.

Stop by picturesque river
Stop by picturesque river

Robyn and I were catching the Greyhound bus to Port Hardy. Or so we thought! Confusion arose. Steve’s family were sure Greyhound, much to the residents’ annoyance, had stopped their services on The Island. But, I had tickets! Even the departure point wasn’t clear. Robyn rang the office which directed us to the ferry terminal. We waited. A Tofino Bus company service to Port Hardy arrived and loaded. We waited some more. When we were the last people left, we discovered the Greyhound wasn’t running, but Tofino Bus Company were honouring the tickets. What a relief! We sat in the two empty seats at the front. The lady behind observed that they hadn’t sat there because they had reserved signs. We hadn’t noticed. She appeared a little aggrieved!

The bus driver was very chatty. Sufficiently so for me to comment to Robyn that I hoped he didn’t continue in that vein for the entire 8 hours to Port Hardy. The door made a horrendous whining noise when closed so he kept opening and closing it, or left it open. We liked it open but others didn’t. I understood his frustration. Like many bus drivers, he was very informative. We were behind schedule the entire way as the bus company, according to him, kept changing the timetable and it was now impossible to adhere to. Our break in Campbell River was therefore shortened. However, it didn’t prevent him from parking by a picturesque river for us to admire the view or stopping at Voss, a settlement comprising a petrol station/shop and a cafe and no other sign of life.

Strategically placed logs to channel flood water
Strategically placed logs to channel flood water
Voss!
Voss!

We arrived at Port Hardy at 5.30pm, checked into the North Coast Trail Hostel, and headed straight to the supermarket to buy our provisions for the long ferry ride the next day. Robyn is not her most amenable if she is hungry! We were very indecisive and by the time we came out, the liquor store was closed. This was a disaster as she had visions of wine and cheese on the ferry. The hostel owners told us of another store and we set off. She was on a mission! It was another balmy evening and an enjoyable march to the pub by the marina. We got a takeaway pizza for dinner and spent the rest of the evening preparing for an early start.

Marina at Port Hardy
Marina at Port Hardy
Not allowed to board yet
Not allowed to board yet

The shuttle, an old yellow school bus, arrived just after 5am. Although the ferry didn’t leave until 7.30am we had to be there two hours prior. There was a longer queue of cars than usual, according to the bus driver. A ‘director of traffic’ eventually waved us to the front of it. Robyn insisted on a cabin which I, in my meanness, hadn’t booked. A staff member directed her to the ferry office where she queued for 30 minutes only to be told that both of us had to be there with our I.D. so they could issue our boarding buses. (I had stayed with the luggage). We queued again and waited whilst other passengers bought tickets. I needn’t have booked online. The cashier advised us to ask the purser on board about a cabin. Two minutes later, at the foot of the car ramp, we parted with our pristine boarding passes and waited for cars to load before being allowed onto the ship. Luckily, there was a cabin available. Robyn retrieved our luggage, which in the confusion we had had to check in, and we settled in for the 16 hour trip.

Early morning at the ferry terminal
Early morning at the ferry terminal
A foggy morning at Port Hardy
A foggy morning at Port Hardy
Observing activities at Bellabella
Observing activities at Bellabella

It was very foggy and remained overcast and dreary until 4pm when the clouds miraculously cleared. In the meantime, we sat in the cabin, read, wandered the decks, drank and ate. The route took us up the isolated Inside Passage where there is little or no habitation. Tree-clad mountains arose on either side the entire way and we were only exposed to the open sea in two places.

We had one stop at Bellabella where a large group of kayakers disembarked. It has no road access and is the site of a large First Nations reservation. We had met one resident, Conrad, whilst waiting to board. He visited Port Hardy regularly to stock up on provisions as it was expensive to buy anything in Bellabella. According to him, his spare bedroom was filled with goods! We noticed all the crew knew him by name. Whilst watching the activities at the dock, I chatted to Marion. She had been practising her clarinet earlier on the top deck and was heading for Smithers, where she lived many years before, to play in a festival. She also hoped to move back to B.C. from Quebec and was visiting potential places to live. How well I know the agony of that decision!

We arrived in Prince Rupert at 11.30pm. Robyn had already showered in our private bathroom and was in her pyjamas. We were desperate to get to our hostel, the Black Rooster. However, we had to wait for all the cars to disembark before being allowed off. Foot passengers were definitely not the priority on this ferry!

No taxis were waiting. When they arrived, the drivers were reluctant to take people going to different accommodation in one vehicle. The passengers thwarted them and organised themselves!

With all the dilly dallying and waiting, it was 1am by the time we slumped into bed. It was a long but enjoyable day and I appreciated that Robyn had insisted on the cabin. It made all the difference.