Poor Prince Rupert.
This tiny coastal town finally gets its day in the sun. But nobody is raving about its rugged charm.
Prince Rupert is where bald eagles nest, deer eat flowers from front porches, and totem poles are nearly as common as parking meters. It’s a quirky town with a fascinating history - an unheralded victim of the Titanic disaster.
But now it’s best known as the battleground of the Pacific Northwest salmon war.
In July, Canadian fishermen blockaded the Alaska ferry here, trapping travelers for three days and drawing the ire of the U.S. State Department. The Canadians believe Alaskan fishermen are grabbing too many salmon, which spawn in Canada but swim through U.S. waters. The blockade, the second such action in three years, was meant to draw attention to the disagreement. It succeeded. Alaska, twice burned, has rerouted its ferries around the city.
Now Prince Rupert’s economy and reputation are suffering. But travelers are losing out, too.
The city of 17,000, located 30 miles south of the Alaska panhandle, is on few vacation wish lists. There are reasons. It’s rainy - 250 days most years - and it’s isolated.
But these qualities also make Prince Rupert a rewarding stop on an Inside Passage excursion. The rain feeds towering forests that surround the city, and the isolation makes the city’s attractions all the more unexpected.
Visitors can stroll among natural bonsai trees and take in sights such as a restored salmon cannery village. (Picture a tiny, fish-themed Williamsburg.) Back in town, there are shops, restaurants with fresh seafood and accommodations in bed-and-breakfasts with ocean views. The city also is a jumping-off point for rail trips and excursions to the Queen Charlotte Islands, and a newly opened grizzly-bear habitat.
The wilderness is never far, even from what passes for downtown. Float planes buzz overhead, and when mist and fog set in, as regularly happens, the city feels like the edge of the earth. It’s astonishing to realize that 100 years ago, there was nothing here but forest, ocean and mountains.
Prince Rupert was dreamed up by U.S, railroad tycoon Charles Hays, who looked at a map and where others saw untamed wilderness, he saw a geographic business opportunity. The northern coast of British Columbia is close to the ports of Asia, he noted, meaning products could reach market more quickly and at less cost than those shipped from cities to the south, such as Vancouver, Seattle and San Francisco.
There were a few problems. There was no port, no city and no rail line. But what are vast stretches of seemingly impenetrable rain forest and mountains to a big-thinking industrialist? Not much, actually.
In a few years, Hays raised millions of dollars and finagled a sweetheart deal with the government of British Columbia to get access to the land. By the early 1900s, he had created a town and brought a rail line to his new ice-free port, the third deepest in the world.
The city was named through a national contest. A girl from Winnipeg suggested honoring Prince Rupert, the first governor of Hudson’s Bay Co. and a cousin of Charles II.
Hays also envisioned tourists, who would visit on a great triangle trip through the Northwest. Visitors would start at the Empress Hotel in Victoria, then travel to Banff’s resort area in Alberta. Then they’d cross back to Prince Rupert to luxuriate in another grand hotel. Finally they’d steamship back to Victoria.
The astonishing thing is that nearly a century later, most of this has happened. Not on the scale or time frame Hays imagined, but let’s not be picky.
Prince Rupert now does ship out millions of tons of coal, lumber and grain, which come by rail from the Canadian prairies. Any time day or night, a freighter from someplace such as South Korea or Japan waits patiently for its turn to load - the business is strictly exports. The giant industrial hulks seem out of place with the backdrop of forested islands and circling eagles.
As for the tourist trade, well, it’s not exactly the Bahamas. Part of the problem is Hays never built his grand hotel. He had lined up investors on a trip to England, but he and the plans never made it home. They both went down with the Titanic.
The planned site of the hotel now holds a drab, aluminum-sided shopping mall.
But visitors do come. Some arrive by train: The mountain route up from Vancouver is a favorite among rail enthusiasts. Rupert also serves as a ferry crossroads. The British Columbia ferry system serves the town, and, until the salmon wars, so did the Alaska ferries. A few small cruise ships also visit the city occasionally.
Some visitors even come by air, which is an adventure in itself. There’s regular jet service from Vancouver, but the excitement starts at the Prince Rupert airport, which is located on an island. Passengers must pay about $8 to board a shuttle bus and take a ferry to Rupert. Everyone gets off at the mall, where they are finally reunited with their luggage.
Prince Rupert is hardly a metropolis, but it has urban charms. There’s a restored wharf area called Cow Bay. A two-block SoHo by the sea, it has gift shops, a B&B; and eateries, including Smiles, a no-nonsense fish restaurant that was a favorite dating spot for U.S. soldiers. During World War II, the city housed thousands of U.S. personnel, who helped build the Alaska Highway and stood ready to defend the coast against Japanese invasion.
The city’s shopping district looks like small-town USA with a few Rupert touches. City Hall is built in art-deco style but with inset northwest Indian designs. The local movie palace, now a bingo parlor, still bears its neon-lighted name: Totem.
And only in Prince Rupert would you find Slickers Raingear Warehouse, a store devoted to outfoxing liquid precipitation. “We wouldn’t last five minutes in any other town,” a clerk told me as I compared four different types of rain pants.
Rain is a way of life in the self-proclaimed City of Rainbows, although residents try to ignore the precipitation, which averages 93 inches annually.
And rain has never kept people away from the region. Long before Hays and his grand plans, the area held appeal to Indians. With its abundant salmon runs and rich forests, natives lived the high-life here for thousands of years.
Indian influence still holds sway. A dozen totem poles stand around the city, and new ones are always in the making at a museum-sponsored carving shed across the street from the courthouse. Native presence also is seen in the face of shoppers pushing carts in the supermarket. About a third of the city’s population is Indian.
Native artifacts also fill the Museum of Northern British Columbia, housed in a striking new glass-and-cedar building that looks like Architectural Digest’s version of an Indian longhouse.
Typical of Prince Rupert, the museum tries hard to please its visitors. A hyperactive schedule has enough events, tours and excursions to keep tourists busy for days. There are walking tours, boat trips, dramatic performances, even poetry reading in the forest.
Prince Rupert’s other charm is the wilderness that surrounds it.
The city has a wealth of hiking trails, including the scenic Butze Rapids trail. Just a few feet from the highway and you’re in rain forest with towering cedars, moss-covered surfaces and wild berries. The rapids themselves are a letdown after the walk. But visit just as the tide shifts and you can watch as rapids slacken, then begin moving in the opposite direction. There are picnic areas on the trail, so try to time a snack with the tide tables.
Another Rupert trail, Oliver Lake, is best in the company of Nancy Oliver (a distant relation to the lake). For the equivalent of about $3.75, she or her husband will walk you through a bog.
Once again, the main draw on this trail - natural bonsai - is only part of the appeal. Under Oliver’s guidance, the greenery becomes an open-air drug store. She points out plants Indians used to treat diabetes, indigestion and even acne. There’s also the sundew plant, a carnivorous species that traps insects to supplement its diet.
The bonsai, twisted century-old lodgepole pines that grow only a few feet high, are worthy of study, too. The gnarly trunked plants are stunted, unable to flourish in the bog’s acidic soil. Japanese artists achieve the same affect with bonsai by clipping roots.
And finally, any Rupert visit must pay homage to the salmon.
At one point, 200 canneries dotted the coast. The history is preserved at the North Pacific Cannery Village Museum, the largest remaining cannery village on the west coast, about 20 minutes from Prince Rupert.
Our guide describes a rough existence for the Chinese, Japanese, Native Indian and European families who lived here. Walking through the production area, we see where cans were made and fish cleaned and packed. Giant tanks that held fish oil tower outside. It takes no imagination to dredge up an awful stench.
The tour also passes by workers’ homes and fishing equipment. The wooden village now looks quaint and cozy. A waterfront boardwalk passes by tiny red and white houses, fronted with flowers. The homes are occupied during the summer by museum employees, and there are plans for a B&B.; A gift shop features salmon-themed souvenirs, and offers a colorful display of cannery labels.
After all this talk about salmon, the museum wisely offers a chance to sample some. Its restaurant is run by a former fishing-camp cook, and the man taking my order says without modesty that the unassuming former mess hall serves the best fresh fish in the region.
The Pacific Northwest salmon war is about economics, biology and international treaties, but on this late afternoon, I face another battle. Do I order the thick salmon chowder, studded with potatoes and carrots, or do I stick with a pan-fried Chinook salmon steak, served with home-made potato salad?
Eating salmon will increase demand, I reason, which will push up prices and boost income for fishermen on both sides of the border.
I do my part for peace in the fish war. I order both.
For more information about Prince Rupert, call (800) 667-1994. Information about the Alaska Marine Highway System is available at (800) 642-0066.
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