Wading through thick fog on a late September morning, we boarded the MV Frances Barkley, a sturdy steel-hulled 1950’s vintage ferry originally built for the fjords of Norway.
Along with 40 other passengers, bags of mail, and freight for outposts along the route, we chugged out of Port Alberni. Our destination: Bamfield, a remote village on the west coast of Vancouver Island, approximately 40 nautical miles away.
The MV Frances Barkley is a working packet freighter, and this is most definitely not a luxury cruise. There’s a choice of seating indoors: rump-sprung red leatherette in the forward section, or industrial style dinette chairs and formica tables in the galley. The food offerings are of the traditional greasy spoon variety (we brought our own picnic fare).
But the views are grand, the crew is friendly, and the passengers are an interesting mix of world travelers who have somehow found their way to this unique experience.
Our captain, in his delightful Scottish brogue, shared a bit of history as we cruised along. Our first stop was the Kildonan Post Office, Canada’s last floating post office and the site of a former fish cannery built in 1903.
The freighter sidled up to the post office, the friendly old dog trotted out to greet the boat, and bags of mail were exchanged.
We reached the boardwalk village of Bamfield at close to noon, after about 3 1/2 hours of sailing time. The captain gave us the option of staying on the boat as it made the rounds of the Barkley Sound, or exploring the town of Bamfield. He suggested either walking the boardwalk or hiking the half-mile trail to Brady’s Beach.
We chose to do both (couldn’t stand the thought of missing out on anything!), which meant a speedy hike to the beach and some leisurely exploration of the tide pools, followed by a speedy hike back and a speedy walk up and down the boardwalk. We barely made it back to the boat on time. Had we missed the boat, we would have spent a couple of nights in Bamfield until the Frances Barkley called again. I can think of worse ways to spend a couple of days.
Port Alberni is a surprisingly delightful town. We were there only to sail on the Frances Barkley, but enjoyed our time so much that we ended up lingering for four days. We stayed at nearby Sproat Lake Provincial Park, the perfect location for exploring Port Alberni and nearby Stamp River Provincial Park.
The Port Alberni Lighthouse is located on the waterfront and serves as the Maritime Discovery Center. The lighthouse was never a “real” lighthouse (it was built in the 1990’s by the maritime heritage society using generic lighthouse plans) but it contains a historic lantern taken from Chrome Island off the east coast of Vancouver Island. Although the lantern beacon is turned on during the summer, it has to be turned off at night because it disturbs the neighbors.
While strolling along the pier, we came upon a wild little boat whirling, spinning, and bounding in the rough waters. It looked like a crazed Australian shepherd rounding up a herd of sheep—but this was a herd of enormous logs. We learned later that this is a boom boat, and rounding up logs is precisely its job description. Isn’t that the cutest boat? I want one!
We spent most of the rest of our days in Port Alberni searching for bears. The fall is salmon run season, and the bears come out for the easy pickings. We hung out at the Somass River in Port Alberni waiting for the bears to show up. They did, and it was fun watching them fish, but we didn’t get any decent photos. Well, except for this one.
We had great luck at beautiful Stamp River Provincial Park, though. The salmon run thick in the Stamp River, and we cheered them on as they flung themselves up the falls. Not sure why some of the fish insist on taking the hard way when there’s a fish ladder available. It was way more fun to watch them go up the falls, but it was also pretty cool to see the fish on live camera squeezing themselves through the ladder.
We were in search of bears, and spent a couple of afternoons looking for them. We watched them fishing far away across the river, but wanted closer views. A hiking trail took us to a remote area of the river, where we found the bears leisurely fishing.
About the campground:
We really enjoyed our peaceful stay at Sproat Lake Provincial Park. Like all of Canada’s provincial parks, there are no hookups. But the sites are large and level, there’s water available throughout the campground, and the showers are decent. The park is 15 minutes from Port Alberni and about 20 minutes from Stamp River Provincial Park, an excellent place to see salmon and bears in the fall.
There are two loops in the campground; we preferred the lower loop, which is closer to the lake. No internet (of course!). But there’s blazing fast free internet and a cozy atmosphere at the SteamPunk Café in Port Alberni. The coffee is good, and the owner makes yummy scones from his grandmother’s recipe.
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