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Prince Rupert, British Columbia

by Murray Lundberg


Aerial photo of Prince Rupert, BC     From my perch high above the inlet (not as high as the aerial photo to the right!), the view was postcard-perfect. This was the Northwest Coast at its finest.

    Dense coastal rainforest covered the slopes of the mountains, the green broken only by a few patches of snow at the higher elevations. Every few minutes, a bald eagle sailed by, right at eye level and very close. Below, boats of all types, from small runabouts and commercial fishing boats to a huge freighter, cruised across the nearly-calm waters. A constant parade of floatplanes added to the atmosphere. The arrival of a superb seafood rigatoni at my table inside the glass walls of the restaurant reminded me that, as wonderful as the scenery is, it's the richness of the sea that has allowed people to thrive in this area for thousands of years.

One of the many totem poles in Prince Rupert, BC     For visitors, Prince Rupert is a very pedestrian-friendly town. I had planned to rent a car for my five-day stay in March, but had no problem keeping busy within walking distance of my downtown hotel. Fine dining, parks, funky places to have coffee, a totem pole walking tour, specialty shopping and quiet places to just sit and enjoy the view are all available.

    Wildlife viewing in the area is extremely good. On the drive down the Skeena River Valley on the way in, we saw many bald eagles and swans, and by boat you can see orcas, humpback and gray whales, sea lions, porpoises and many other species. Local tour operators offer day trips that provide the opportunity to see wilderness animals such as grizzlies and the very rare Kermode, or "Spirit" Bear.

    Prince Rupert is no longer on the itinerary of most of the huge cruise ships that ply the Inside Passage to Alaska, and although that has negative consequences for the economy of the city, it has resulted in the community having a very different personality than the ports where the ships do call often. For land-based travellers, or those aboard the ferries and smaller ships that include Prince Rupert on their tours, it provides the opportunity to see what a coastal community is really like.

    Local historian Phylis Bowman says that the huge fire of June 10, 1972, that wiped out most of the waterfront facilities was the day Prince Rupert died. Complex ownership issues resulted in docks suitable for cruise ships not being rebuilt for many years. Passengers were apparently not happy about being shuttled into town in small boats ("tendering"), so most ships quit coming, and few have returned to this day.

Cow Bay - Prince Rupert, BC     The community is far from being dead, though. There is no question that the waterfront now is very unusual compared to that found in other coastal communities. A railway storage yard occupies the prime real estate below downtown and the major hotels, and much of the bluff above it is occupied by low-rent apartments and the huge blank wall of a shopping mall. But that first impression is deceiving. A small park with a railway museum welcomes visitors, and a short walk takes you to Cow Bay, the tiny but vibrant heart of the community's waterfront revitalization efforts. At Cow Bay, excellent restaurants alternate with gift shops and B&Bs, and a new dock and shopping centre offers a great place to enjoy the harbour activity.

    On the bluff above Cow Bay is the city's finest park, the Pacific Mariners' Memorial Park. The restored fishing boat Kazu Maru, a statue entitled "We Are Out There," and a wall with individual bricks dedicated to people who have been lost in local waters put the surrounding beauty into perspective.

    Adjoining this park is the magnificent Museum of Northern British Columbia, a must-see for those with an interest in either Northwest history generally or the traditional art of the Tsimshian and other aboriginal peoples of the region. The main gallery of Native art is easy to miss, but the combination of a high-quality collection and spectacular setting make it one of the finest I've seen.

    One of the features of Prince Rupert that I find the most charming is that there are fascinating little "corners" everywhere. Beautiful parks and gardens, totem poles and statues erected in surprising places, historic commercial buildings and private homes, walking paths, an excellent book store - the list goes on and on. Possibly because it is off the usual "tourist route," the residents of Prince Rupert are exceptionally friendly - even in a region that's known for friendly people they stand out.

    Have fun exploring this corner of our world!