The Northern region is one of my top recommendations for travellers planning a visit to Vancouver Island. I return as often as I can, including plans to take the popular BC Ferries route between Port Hardy and Prince Rupert. The draw for me is the high concentration of wildlife and impactful connections with the area’s First Nations.
Whales, Seals & bird-life
Johnstone Strait is a narrow passage that separates Vancouver Island from the mainland. The Strait is set amongst steep fjords, small islands, and lush rainforest, featuring old-growth red cedar and Sitka spruce of up to 1000 years old. Subsurface upwellings and penetrating ocean currents result in a rich marine environment. This area is best known as the world’s prime orca viewing region. During the day, you can search for resident and transient orca pods that come to feed in July to early October. Launching from either Port Hardy or Port McNeill 12 miles south, boats take visitors in groups of 4 to 40 onto the waters of the strait in search of sea birds, orca, minke and humpback whales, several species of dolphin, black bear, harbour seals and Northern sea lions. Active travellers can explore the area by kayak in either single day or multi-day trips of up to a week long.
Great Bear Rainforest
With a bit of extra time, the boats can access the inlets on the mainland, where the spring and fall seasons offer exceptional Grizzly sightings. Each spring, the Grizzlies are seen feeding on grasses near the inlet shores. Each fall, when the salmon return to their rivers of origin, the grizzlies gather at the spawning channels feeding fervently on the protein-rich fish in preparation for winter. Day trips and multi-day adventures deliver travellers to these remote wildlife locations.
Historic Alert Bay
A forty-five minute ferry ride transports visitors from Port McNeill to Alert Bay on Cormorant Island. The town is historically significant as the oldest First Nations community on North Vancouver Island. It is also known as a centre for the resurgence of Indigenous culture. The Kwakwaka’wakw have been instrumental in spearheading a movement to reclaim their traditional art, dances, songs, legends, ceremonies, and language. The U’mista Cultural Centre showcases an incredible collection of historical and repatriated artifacts depicting the Potlatch Ceremony of the Kwakwaka’wakw.
During my last visit, I was able to partake in a scrumptious feast of traditional foods made by the community who undertook the effort for our large group of dozens of international students. Our group also had a moving opportunity to witness traditional dances and legends in a performance at the Big House. The original Big House was lost to a fire in August 1997 but was rebuilt and opened again in 1999 for ceremonial potlatches and summer weekend dance performances.
A must-see on the island is the Ecological Park where a treasure trove of botanical delights is accessed by boardwalk and trails through marsh and moss-draped forests. The 'Namgis Burial grounds offer impressive memorial totem poles to commemorate deceased members of the Kwakwaka’wakw - and while sobering, these are another essential island highlight. In the wake of recent discoveries of mass unmarked children’s graves at former residential schools across Canada, a visit to the former Alert Bay residential school is impactful.
The communities of Northern Vancouver Island are currently accessible by flight (Pacific Coastal airlines or Air Canada) or self-drive. BC Ferries has considered operating from Tsawwassen to Port Hardy in order to help develop boost the tourism economy in Northern Vancouver Island, and to provide a lower-mainland link to their popular Inside Passage cruise. Re-starting the bus route from Victoria that was formerly operated by Greyhound is also being considered. Contact Tours of Exploration by Adventica for more details on booking travel in this area