We arrived in Prince Rupert in July 1981 in the sixth week of a drive that took us from Quebec up to Inuvik in the North West Territories, across to Alaska and back down through northern British Columbia, before heading east and returning home. We spent our first night in the campground there installing the new starter solenoid that we’d bought three weeks earlier in Whitehorse, after it first started failing in Ottawa, just two hours after the start of our trip. Our VW bus was rusty and slow, but had already carried us a long way, and across seven ferry crossings, on that expedition.
From the campground we could see the ferry terminal. On impulse we decided to see if we could get a ticket—the Inside Passage trip was well known for its beauty. But it was the middle of summer, we had no booking, and not much cash. But luck was with us—there was space for us and our vehicle and the fare was reasonable.
The boat was the MV Queen of the North, and we skipped getting a cabin, both to save money and to spend as much time as possible on deck enjoying the view. Unfortunately it was an overnight trip, so we missed some of the scenery. But what we did see was magnificent. This ferry route also serves a number of remote communities along the coast; I remember calling at Bella Coola on our trip.
Technically the Inside Passage refers to a coastal route that stretches from Skagway in Alaska to Seattle in Washington. For most of that distance vessels can navigate between islands and the mainland and shelter from the more extreme weather of the northern Pacific. And because the route is always close to land, (often very close) it is very picturesque.
This ferry trip was one of the highlights of a great trip, and was smooth, had great weather and was completely uneventful. We’ve recommended it to anyone prepared to listen, and dreamt of repeating it one day. Then in 2006 came the accident—the news that the Queen of the North had run aground and sunk with the loss of two lives doing exactly the same trip we had taken 25 years earlier.
This was a disaster that shook Canadians—this wasn’t the sort of thing that happened in our country. As so often in accidents like this the inevitable investigations and court cases turned up a whole load of problems with the operation of the ship, although the main cause of the accident was human error, or more likely gross incompetence.
BC Ferries learned a lot from this and their operations have improved as a result. The boat was replaced, the service continues, and given half a chance I’d go back and do it again – preferably all in daylight.
It was 1981, I was using Kodachrome slide film, and short of money. So, beautiful and interesting as it all was, there aren't many photos!