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First Nations Discovery

Need to hit the road and just drive before stopping to dial it back for a few days?  Point yourself north of Campbell 

River, passing by charming but busy Telegraph Cove and on just a bit further to Port McNeill  “Gateway to the Broughton Archipelago”.  Then drive onto BC Ferries three point service across Broughton Strait to Malcolm Island and Cormorant Island – better known by the names of their settlements  - Sointula and Alert Bay – for an experience you won’t soon forget.

25 minutes onboard delivers you to Malcolm Island and Sointula “Place of Harmony” - with its colourful Finnish history and BC’s oldest co-operative store, standing front and centre at the top of the ferry ramp, still reflecting the Scandinavian heritage of its island pioneers and their descendants. Sointula is a great place for a base camp from which to explore Malcolm Island, Alert Bay and Port McNeill.

Stay at one of the town’s B&Bs, guest cottages or vacation rentals or commit yourself wholeheartedly to nature and travel a further 5km to the north coast of the island and Bere Point Regional Park’s rustic campground overlooking the renowned Broughton Archipelago with its backdrop of mainland coastal mountains.  In Sointula at the end of the day, sit on your deck and watch the sunset over Vancouver Island as Alaska cruise ships quietly sail past enroute to distant ports north and south.

Whether you camp or not, Bere Point park is a must see.  In addition to the 5km Beautiful Bay hike that winds its way through the rainforest above the beach, there is an orca rubbing beach here that is known to be used by the killer whales of the area.  Each summer, whale researchers camp on the beach by the campground, monitoring the comings and goings of the orcas (killer whales) that travel these waters.  It was a conversation with one of these researchers surrounded by his telemetry equipment that led us to phone up Bill Mackay of Mackay Whale Watching in Port McNeill and book a whale watching tour for the third day of our getaway – the best advice we’ve received in years! 

For other activities, browse First Street storefronts, artist’s studios and cafes and be sure to check out the notice board at the Sointula Co-op for seasonal opportunities to charter fishing trips or sightseeing tours to the Broughton Archipelago. Plan to take the ferry as foot passengers to link up with a pre-booked day-long whale watching tour out of Port McNeill or take the 45-minute crossing to Alert Bay for a day steeped in First Nations culture and history between the rainforest and the sea with artistic motifs of whales, salmon, bears and ravens reflecting the natural world around you.

When you arrive in Alert Bay, pick up the self-guided walking tour map.  This will ensure you see the world’s tallest totem pole as well as many historic sites and more totem poles erected near the cemetery to the right of the ferry terminal.  Above all, be sure to visit the U’mista Cultural Centre, visible at the far end of the bay as you approach the landing.  This world renowned centre documents - in profoundly moving exhibits - the historic importance of the potlatch ceremonies to the Kwakwaka'wakw nation and the impact of the Canadian government’s ban on potlatches which lasted from 1895 to 1951. Due to the efforts of native elders negotiating over the decades with the federal government and museums around the world, many of these ceremonial objects and masks have since been returned and housed in this purpose built cultural centre.  These priceless artifacts have greater impact as viewed in the heart of this community in the context of history than any seen in museums further south. Highly recommended.

For your day of whale watching, the cars waiting for the morning ferry from Sointula to Port McNeill is a wake-up call for the trip home.  Be glad you’re a walk on passenger today!  Cars line up along First Street from the south side.  As foot passengers, plan to have a leisurely full breakfast at any of the restaurants or diners that can be found near the Port McNeill harbour.  You will still have plenty of time to wander over to the Mackay Whale Watching office before 10 am and then meet Bill dockside for your tour to see the orcas.  This is a boat trip I would encourage everyone to take.  Wrap up well even in fine weather – it’s windy up on deck.  Bill seems to find sea lions, bears, eagles and deer almost everywhere he looks and then … orcas.  Magnificent creatures in spectacular scenery.  Bill is a master storyteller and technically knowledgeable guide. You will not be disappointed, this tour is worth every penny.  Don’t forget your camera and if it has a burst mode…. use it!

Leaving this corner of Vancouver Island is hard to do – Broughton and Johnstone Straits provide such connection to the natural wonders of BC that it is sad to head south and back to traffic and concrete.  If you really can’t leave this part of the world and have the time, continue north about 30 minutes to Port Hardy.  From here you can launch out on another super-natural voyage across Queen Charlotte Sound to Prince Rupert and the Queen Charlotte Islands.  Or drive out to Cape Scott Provincial Park and do the day hike from the trail head out to San Josef Bay for a swim in the Pacific Ocean on the West Coast of Vancouver Island! Eventually though, the journey must come to an end and easing back into it from the open road between Port McNeill and Campbell River into the semi-rural communities leading to the ferry in Nanaimo and on south, seems a very gradual transition from your back to nature and First Nations trip to Sointula and Alert Bay.

Thanks to E. James of North Vancouver, BC for this submission

Editor's Note: Google mapping doesn’t recognize Sointula, Alert Bay or the ferry system in between. A forgotten land. In many ways that may be a good thing.

  1. Start: BC Ferry Terminal - Departure Bay Nanaimo
    Ferry Service Between Nanaimo and West Vancouver 
  2. Campbell River BC
    From internationally renowned salmon fishing to skiing at nearby Mount Washington; safe streets to wilderness experiences; fine dining to golfing; Campbell River has it all!
  3. End: Port McNeill BC
    Gateway to the Broughton Archipelago