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Canada by cargo ship

The little Aurora Explorer plies British Columbia's Inside Passage, giving a novel taste of the north.

August 03, 2003|Margo Pfeiff | Special to The Times

Campbell River, Canada — It was early evening, and it seemed as though all of nature's creatures were looking for dinner. The two black bears onshore were turning over rocks and pawing at whatever goodies scrambled from beneath them. For my part, I had my fishing line over the side of the Aurora Explorer, hoping to score my first-ever saltwater fish.

By dusk I had finally reversed my lifetime of bad angling luck, snagging two fine sea bass. They weren't the salmon I'd hoped for, but fileted and sauteed in butter, they were a nice accompaniment to the six Dungeness crabs and 99 prawns we had hauled from traps set the previous day.

After dinner we passengers stood contentedly on the deck of the Explorer, glasses of chilled white wine in hand, watching the Carnival Spirit cruise past. The 2,124-passenger behemoth looked like a vast floating city as it made its way down British Columbia's Inside Passage. We, on the other hand, were a scant 12 passengers in our cozy little craft. Dwarfed, yes, but unhappy, no. Not one of us, a quick poll revealed, would have traded places -- despite the Carnival's promise of Jacuzzis and champagne -- for our five-day voyage around the Broughton Archipelago on the Aurora Explorer.

I had heard about this trip years earlier from friends who had sailed on it as part of their 25th anniversary celebration, and I liked the idea because it was an insight into real life on a rugged, otherwise inaccessible piece of spectacular coastline between the northern tip of Vancouver Island and the British Columbia coast. Life on a mammoth ship didn't appeal to us; we preferred the intimacy and personal attention of a small vessel. The Aurora was especially intriguing because it offered a glimpse into the ways of loggers, fishermen, fish farm managers and people living in far-flung coastal communities.

We puttered among hummocky islets, which resembled hedgehogs, and along steep-walled fiords. We saw dolphins, porpoises, abandoned native communities and bears foraging on the shore.

It might be a stretch to call the odd-looking Aurora Explorer a "cruise ship." It's a 135-foot riverboat built in 1972 and shipped piecemeal to the Beaufort Sea, where it was used for seismic surveys. Alan Meadows of Marine Links, a ship-borne supply company for remote communities and camps, thought people might be interested in exploring the fiords and islands of this remote and convoluted coastline on a working freight boat, so in 1992 he bought the boat and moved it south.

His hunch was right. Berths fill up months in advance of sailings, despite the shudders and rattles on this slow little boat that has, as its priority, the delivery of all manner of unromantic cargo, from portable powder rooms to powdered milk.

All 12 of us knew this when we came on board in June last year near Campbell River, halfway up the east coast of Vancouver Island, and took possession of our six small but comfortable bunk-style staterooms on the main deck, where we shared two showers. One level above was a compact dining/lounge area with a good library of nautical and local books, and up one more floor was the sunny wheelhouse, where everyone was welcome anytime. The four decks were stacked at the stern of what looked like -- and, in fact, was -- a landing craft. The long, cargo-laden deck was a jumble of boom chains, spools of wire, backhoes and 1-ton sacks of fish food. The Explorer is flat and shallow, excellent for running up on pebble or sand beaches to make deliveries where there are no docks.

Our first business stop, before dinner, was an aquaculture farm on Sonora Island. As engineer Bruce Stockand manned the on-board crane unloading sacks of fish meal, we got an informal tour. "When this farm operates at full capacity, we have 1.2 million salmon," the manager told us, "and when those fish are at market size, they'll eat through ... 30 tons in a single day at a cost of $1,000 a sack [about $721 U.S.]."

A bald eagle was perched on a fence overlooking the pens, and it eyed the ponds of live churning chowder. Did it ever take any? "He's like a pet," the manager said. "Any he can catch he's welcome to." As if on cue the bird swooped, hooked a fish in its talons and flew off.

We tied up alongside the pens for the night, and I drifted off to sleep to the sound of jumping salmon.

A pajama-clad audience

Sometimes the tides dictated our schedule, and we would have to run at night to catch high water at the heads of fiords. The engine noise and vibration soon became part of shipboard life.

Once, when we stopped in the middle of the night, the silence startled me awake. I threw on a sweatsuit and raced up to the wheelhouse to watch skids of groceries, propane canisters and a flatbed truck being unloaded at a logging camp in an efficient, wordless exchange beneath spotlights. I wasn't the only one; the other passengers, all pajama-clad, were there too in their eagerness to see everything that went on.

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