Alert Bay, Cormorant Island, BC

We flew into Alert Bay airport (CYAL) on Cormorant Island, British Columbia, in early September, experiencing low stratus fractus and bouts of heavy rain along the way–quintessential coastal BC flying. Aerial of red fishing boat, Alert BayWith mist-shrouded barges torpidly plowing the Johnstone Strait below us, and the pines and cedars of the channel’s dozens of sparsely inhabited islands cloaked in cloud, we eventually reached the little island that possesses the world’s largest totem pole, which tops out at 173 feet.

Trail sign
Trail sign, Alert Bay

Situated between Broughton Strait and Pearse Passage off the north-eastern coast of Vancouver Island, Cormorant Island has a 2900 foot airstrip, as well as a water aerodrome in the village of Alert Bay.  Non-pilots can travel here by ferry  from Port McNeill, on the north-east end of Vancouver Island. Stop sign unique to Comorant Island A large flock of stubborn Canada Geese temporarily vacated the runway after our low-and-over pass and returned immediately after we landed. We taxied our plane to the Alert Bay Cabins, situated right on the north side of the airport, at the threshold of runway 27. If you’ve rented a cabin, the only thing that prevents you from taxiing right up to your doorstep is a short but steep descent!Alert Bay cabins Despite the drizzly weather, after unloading the plane and whipping up a yummy lunch in our cabin, we rambled beneath the hemlocks and cedars along East trail. East trail starts just across from the Alert Bay Cabins’ reception building and wends through the forest to the island’s Ecological Park (once called Gator Gardens, though there are no gators, which probably was the reason for the name change). Ecological Park boardwalk The park originated when, in 1881, a fish saltery converted to a canning factory and built a dam to serve the factory’s needs, flooding the top of the island’s hill. Although the plant closed in 1941, the dam remains, with the freshwater spring continuing to bubble up at the top of the hill faster than the water flows down.

Witches' hair moss
Witches hair moss, draped over the trees & underbrush

The East trail is part of a 16km network of trails throughout the island, and it’s very easy to get turned around in here because of the many forks and unmarked “unofficial” trails linked to them. But as the island is only 4.9km long and 0.8 wide at its narrowest part, we were confident we’d find our way by nightfall. (I’d recommend obtaining a map from the reception at the cabins, or in town at the tourist info centre.  Do not rely on the Google map of the trails! It will lead you astray.)

Aerial of marsh boardwalk
Aerial of the boardwalk at the Ecological Park

 As well as being a haven for kayaking, fishing, whale watching, and hiking, Alert Bay is traditional Kwakwaka’wakw territory. More than half of the village’s 1,200 or so residents are First Nations people.Totem Over 23 totems can be found on the island, many of them in the original ‘Namgis Burial grounds, which is about a 20 minute walk away from the threshold of runway 09.   The tallest totem pole is located on the northwest end of the island; we took the local taxi (phone: 250 947 5525) to see the world-record holder, as well as the ‘Namgis Traditional Big House and the nearby U’mista Cultural Centre. Tallest totem in the worldThe taxi ride in a hard-loved family van turned into an impromptu tour from our driver, who was born and raised on the island. Her stories of island life and lore were absolutely unforgettable. I’d take the taxi ride again for more stories, even if I had nowhere to go.U'mista Cultural Centre The U’mista Cultural Centre houses a collection of elaborately carved masks depicting the Potlatch Ceremony of the Kwakwaka’wakw , as well as several historical artifacts that have been painstakingly repatriated from museums in both Victoria and Ontario.Tourist information centreThere are a number of small restaurants and cafes in town, among the heritage buildings and old village houses, all easily reached on foot from the airport.  The menus offer everything from fries and burgers to fresh-caught halibut.

Historic court & jailhouse
Alert Bay’s old court, jailhouse, & living quarters for the local police officers

Back in our cozy and immaculate cabin with our happily exhausted canine co-pilot, we self-catered with a veggie stew and homemade biscuits, before settling down beside the fire (electrical) to listen to geese honking as the night settled over us. cabin

Note for pilots: there is no Av-gas at Alert Bay.

Right downwind 27
Right downwind, runway 27

 

The Fellowship of the Raven–Gillies Bay, Texada Island

“One of the fellowship will greet you.”

It sounded as if we were to meet a wizard or elf, which seemed fitting, surrounded as we were by stately cedars and hemlocks on a secluded, sparsely populated island.  But the volunteer driver who picked us up from the Texada airstrip carried no otherworldly staff, nor did he sport pointy elfin ears.

Elven town
Elvin houses, Gillies Bay

Retired from the Canadian military & originally hailing from Alberta, he did, however, have a generous nature.  Ray not only drove us to the Ravenous Raven Restaurant for lunch, but he also toured us around the town of Gillies Bay in his car.

Airbuzz-Mk-ll-and-Sandra-Sims--electronics-whiz
A very realistic (AirBuzz Mk II) flight simulator with a professional grade computer program for flight training! A display on multiple monitors shows the attitude of the aircraft as it would be viewed from a real cockpit.

Ray knew Texada airport well, having taught for several years at the Texada AeroSpace Camp.  I wish I were 10 years old again, so could go to the camp!  They have  super-cool equipment & demos, such as a wind tunnel with computer driven sensors, a half-scale Sopwith Pup, and a working model rocket launching system, designed by Texada resident Sandra Sims (pictured above).

Gillies Bay low tide
Gillies Bay at low tide

Just past the residential town of Gillies Bay, on the western shore of Texada Island, we stopped for a photo of Dick’s Island, which is only an island at high tide and is currently for sale at a cool $3 million.

Dick's Island (2)
Dick’s Island

Nearby Shelter Point Park is a gorgeous, forested area fronted with a beach-side view of the Georgia Strait.  Ray informed us that the adjacent Bella Maria Campground  is extremely popular in the summer.

 

After our mini-tour, Ray dropped us off at the Ravenous Raven. We’d phoned in advance (604) 486-0471 and talked with Janet Bott, island inhabitant and one of the owners of the Raven.  It was she who had provided phone numbers for “the fellowship”, several resident volunteers who drive visitors about for a donation.

img_5001
We strongly recommend that pilots bring along a tire pump if they want to use the loaner bikes! (there’s a donation box for use of bikes)

There are a number of bicycles available at the airport for those who wish to ride into town, but we’d been uncertain of how steep the climb would be returning from town to airport.  We can happily report that the quiet, pretty road into town from the airport is a gentle descent, and we’re determined to cycle it on our next visit.

 

The congenial atmosphere at the Raven perfectly complemented the mouth-watering food. I had a home-made vegetarian bean burger & salad, and David went with a succulent and flaky halibut with chips.  The heavenly chocolate orange cheesecake is made by Janet herself.

 

Afterwards, Janet showed us one of the delightful rooms available for rent above the Raven, which boasts a lovely balcony view of the Bay itself.

 

Filled to the brim with great food, we strolled along  the Dr. Sanderson trail, which meanders beside the western shore of Gillies Bay.  The little trail provides  picturesque views of the beach, as well as glimpses into the inventive backyards of the locals.

 

For visiting pilots who’d like a more vigorous hike after lunch at the Raven, Paxton Lake is easily accessible from the airport (see my post here on Paxton Lake),  and an old, winding logging road from the airport leads down to a very secluded beach some distance west of Gillies Bay (see my post here).

 

For those who don’t have a plane, you can fly into Texada via KD Air .  If you’re not flying into Texada, you can reach the island by car by taking a 35 minute ferry ride from Westview in Powell River to Blubber Bay on Texada Island; check out the BC Ferry Schedule hereIf you’re coming from Vancouver, you’ll first have to take a ferry from Horseshoe Bay to Gibsons, then drive to Powell River.

Beach Access
Gillies Bay beach access, across the road & westward a wee bit from the Raven

Avgas is available at Texada/Gillies Bay airport (CYGB).  The airport is camping-under-the-wing friendly & has a flush-able toilet and potable water. cygb

Airplane golf, anyone? Rowena’s Inn & Sandpiper Golf Course, B.C.

Located about 2 hours’ drive from Vancouver, the Sandpiper golf course is a beautiful little fly-in destination, with the magnificent Harrison River lapping upon the shores of the immaculate fairway.  Several copses of towering cedars and hemlocks onsite provide nesting shelter for bald eagles, and Continue reading “Airplane golf, anyone? Rowena’s Inn & Sandpiper Golf Course, B.C.”