Travel guide to Alert Bay, Canada
EAGLES EMERGE FROM the fog. Or maybe they’re ravens. Some are old, some new with brightly coloured wings. Several are broken and decaying.
They are burial totems, carved in memory of lost friends and family. They stand on the hillside facing the water. As the ferry approaches the dock at Alert Bay, they disappear from view.
I’ve come to Alert Bay with no former knowledge. Until a month ago, I hadn’t heard of it. My friend’s husband got work here and she and I have followed, always grabbing at the opportunity to see a new place.
Located on Cormorant Island, off the northwestern tip of Vancouver Island, Alert Bay is the oldest community of the northern V.I. region. The island’s population of about 1,400 is split between the village of Alert Bay and the ‘Namgis Reserve lands, traditionally known as ‘Yalis.
Despite this distinction in land ownership, the community has a neighbourly feel. In 1999, the village and the ‘Namgis First Nation signed the Alert Bay Accord, an agreement to provide mutual support in civic and cultural matters. This arrangement was the first of its kind in Canada.
BC Ferries runs daily service from Port McNeill. Check their website for current fares and schedule.
The small town site is split by Fir Street. Many of its buildings are pioneer-style structures, remnants from the early days of European settlement. We take our time passing through, enjoying the sense of being in an earlier time.
Walking south along Fir Street, we find the eagles. I stand facing these larger-than-life wooden birds. They are the totems of the ‘Namgis First Nation burial ground.
Many have broken or fallen over. I learn later that toppled totems are always left where they fall to return to the earth, the circle of life acknowledged by the creation and eventual decay of these monumental carvings.
Alert Bay is also home to the world’s tallest totem pole, at 56m. This totem can be found inland on Wood Street, next to the Big House, which is brightly painted in First Nations style. Both are worth a visit.
Cormorant Island is about 4km long and 1km wide, making it easy to explore by foot. Around 16km of hiking trails, including both coastal and inland routes, lead through temperate rainforest that’s typical of the Canadian West Coast.
We wander inland through the residential areas in search of the Ecological Park. After a few dead ends and detours, a sign points us in the right direction. The park includes dirt and boardwalk paths through the ‘Gator Gardens, a wetland in the centre of the island.
This is also a good place to see culturally modified trees. The ‘Namgis harvest the bark of cedar trees to make baskets, clothing, and other goods. Signs of this activity can be seen on both standing and fallen trees, the latter which may have been harvested hundreds of years ago.
The Alert Bay municipal website has a printable trail map that’s good for planning day hikes.
Walking through town, we stop at the K’uaweekeelas Treasures & Numas One Stop Shop. For those interested in traditional and modern First Nations artwork, this is a good place to start.
I purchase two fridge magnets made by the Haida, although what I really want is one of the hauntingly beautiful wooden masks I’ve coveted since childhood. The West Coast First Nations are masterful carvers, as seen in the creation of canoes, totems, and these masks.
A stop at Culture Shock Interactive Gallery is essential. Located at the end of a wooden boardwalk near the ferry terminal, jewelry, clothing, and artwork is for sale, along with the best coffee in town.
I order a cup to go while Melissa picks out some earrings made from local shells. The gallery also offers traditional salmon BBQs, storytelling, cedar weaving lessons, and cultural ecotours for small groups. Prices for these activities range from $60-$80CDN.
We stay at Oceanview Cabins, a 10-minute walk from town on Poplar Road. Our cabin is bright, cozy, and equipped with full kitchen, laundry, and a small porch. We pay $110CDN for the “Deluxe Single Suite.”
There are also two campgrounds on Cormorant Island: the Alert Bay Campground by the Ecological Park, and the Gwakawe Campground on the north shore.
For next time
Alert Bay is an excellent place for whale watching. Orcas and humpbacks are abundant and Seasmoke Whale Watching runs ecotours on their sailboat, the SV Tuan.
The U’mista Cultural Society is mandated to preserve the Kwakwa̱ka̱ʼwakw culture, which includes the ‘Namgis of Alert Bay. It houses a permanent collection of artifacts, including carvings and masks associated with the traditional potlatch ceremony. Find U’mista at #1 Front Street.