This story originally appeared in the winter edition of Indulge magazine, a twice-a-year publication published by Peace Arch News.
“During the 1950s to 1970s, Alert Bay was the unofficial capital of North coastal fishing (and good times).”
So begins the text of a sign posted at the ferry terminal, welcoming visitors to the village of 500 on Cormorant Island, the terminus of a 45-minute voyage from Port McNeil.
During its two-decade heyday, Alert Bay’s nightlife was so wild, the sign continues, that at one point in the 1960s, the local taxi company couldn’t keep up with demand for service on weekends, “so they bought a party bus to go from bar to bar all night long.”
Workers arrived each Friday and Saturday to spend the proceeds of a week’s hard labour in the booming fishing, mining and logging industries, “dropping thousands of dollars in a single night at the bars.”
But it wasn’t just the raucous parties that drew them to town: “Thousands of men and their families flocked to Alert Bay every week for supplies, recreation and entertainment.”
The town’s main street, meanwhile, “was bustling with shops and services, numerous government offices, a bowling alley, a Chinatown, four churches, two ship-yards and two theatres.”
During the 1960s, the village was listed in the Guinness Book of World Records as having “most cars per miles of road” because of its 132 private automobiles, 10 taxis and one ambulance – all travelling 6.4 kilometres of paved road.
Supported by the bounty of the Pacific Ocean, almost 1,000 fishing boats were registered in the area, according to the same sign, which features a black-and-white aerial photo of a crowded harbour.
Half a century later, it’s a much quieter scene that greets visitors as they roll or stroll off the BC Ferries vessel that serves both Cormorant Island and the nearby Finnish settlement of Sointula on Malcolm Island.
Still, it’s a striking sight.
Boldly coloured buildings and public Indigenous art make for an engaging stroll along the town’s main street, which doubles as its waterfront.
The abundant artwork – murals and wood carving – reflects the island’s rich history as the traditional home of the Namgis First Nation in the territory of the Kwakwaka’wakw people.
Several wooden structures built along the shoreline each bear a carving of one of the Namgis ancestors from each na’mima – or clan – and a plaque explaining its significance.
For those who want to delve more deeply into the region’s rich Indigenous history, the U’mista Cultural Centre offers exhibits and tours, along with traditional dance performances on Saturdays in July and August.
These days, aside from a pharmacy and a well-stocked general store, where the price of goods reflects the village’s relative isolation, Alert Bay doesn’t offer a great deal in the way of shopping opportunities. But the Pacific coastal community remains the ideal destination for anyone who wants to spend a bit of time in nature, offering outdoor pursuits both on land and at sea.
Alert Bay is the self-proclaimed “home of the killer whale,” and a local business provides visitors with an opportunity to head out into Queen Charlotte Strait, in search of evidence to back up that bold claim.
Seasmoke whale watching tours leave from the government wharf three times a day during the summer and each day at noon during the shoulder season.
Among the species tourists can hope to spy are Bigg’s killer whales, also known as transient orca. These apex ocean predators share the water with, among others, pods of resident orca and migrating humpback whales, as well as sea lions and the occasional otter.
For those who prefer to keep to dry land, the Alert Bay Ecological Park includes a forest trail system that winds along the spine of the island. Protruding roots and muddy sections mean it’s important to watch your step, even as you appreciate the beauty of your surroundings.
In some places the trail narrows to a green-tunnel path, but the payoff is a boardwalk offering safe and scenic passage across a wide area of marshland, complete with benches from which to appreciate the almost mystical moss-covered landscape.
For easy-access beach-combing, there are plenty of places to park along the island’s waterfront road.
When you run out of shoreline to scour and shops to browse, it’s easy to make a quick day-trip to nearby Malcolm Island.
Just let the BC Ferries attendant know about your plans as you board and you can ride back to Port McNeil, then turn around and re-board the ferry for Sointula at no charge. When it’s time to head back, just do the same thing in reverse.
Fifty years ago, Alert Bay was a party town so wild that it needed a dedicated designated driver.
Today, it’s an ideal destination for a relaxing getaway for anyone who’d like to spend a few quiet days enjoying the unspoiled B.C. coast and exploring its rich First Nations history.
For more, visit www.alertbay.ca
If you go: Port McNeil is located 195 kms north of Campbell River on Vancouver Island. Once there, board a BC Ferries vessel for one of several daily sailings that leave between 7:25 a.m.and 9:30 p.m. Certain sailings are closed to passenger vehicles each week to allow for the transportation of dangerous cargo. Be sure to check the schedule when planning your trip.
Accommodation options on Cormorant Island include guest houses, a rustic lodge, boutique hotel, campground and water-view cabins.