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By Cherie Thiessen
(for Travel Writers' Tales)

Photo 3 Frances Barkley arriving at West Bamfield dock

The Frances Barkley nudges the pier on Bamfield's west side, in close proximity to the gleaming red and white buildings of the province's oldest Coast Guard station. A boardwalk twists along the inlet with cottages sprouting docks perching alongside. The proprietor of the tiny general store is hanging out a sign: "Closed for Freight Receiving".

Photo 2. Aboard the Frances Barkley

Our binoculars have never been far from our eyes during this three-hour voyage down wilderness-fringed Alberni Inlet from Port Alberni to Barkley Sound. We've spotted eagles, inched by rainbows, and chugged in and out of rainstorms and occasional splatters of sun. The passenger freighter's crew of five is casual and friendly, and the captain, John Adams, has pointed out interesting spots along the way. Kildonan, for example, was a thriving cannery village of 500 in 1914, but now is home to only a few summer cottagers and fewer still full timers. In summer, the Frances Barkley also stops at the old Sechart whaling station, now a lodge catering to kayakers. This Norwegian built ship, which can carry 200 passengers and 100 tons of cargo, docks wherever it's needed: at fish farms, small settlements like Kildonan, and even float homes.

Photo 4. The boardwalk on West Bamfield

Don Kapalka from the Imperial Eagle Lodge meets us in his cherry red ATV and we jolt along the steep and rocky track. The Kapalkas bought the property in October 2010, adding kitchenettes to their five cottages, improving their one-acre garden and enlarging the dock to accommodate guests arriving by boat.

This is starting to remind me of the Long Beach I used to know 35 years ago, with its rough dirt road snaking from Port Alberni through to the Pacific Rim, and that feeling of being at the very edge of the world, before the area got 'tamed'. Bamfield, after all, is very close to Long Beach's southern extremity at Ucluelet, as crows fly and boats bounce. It's also the northern terminus of the West Coast Trail.

We arrive at the lodge, and - eager to explore - stow our luggage in our immaculate accommodation, soon slogging along the rocky track in search of Brady's Beach, a scenic and popular public beach and cove.

Photo 1. Brady's Beach

Twenty minutes later we emerge unto an expansive beach, with tidal pools to explore and huge stacks to clamber on, while monster rollers toss up spray, and mallards play hide and seek. We wander until we're 'beachcombed out' and ready to explore Bamfield's more developed side. East and West Bamfield are split by the inlet, connected only by boat. With twice the population and most of the amenities, East Bamfield is home to the well-known Bamfield Marine Sciences Centre, dedicated to education and research. Here is also where the pub hangs out, along with a motel, restaurant, marine shop, and much of the population of 250.

It's not always easy to find a skipper to ferry you across the inlet, but because we're at the Imperial Eagle, we're in luck. Don operates several boats and water taxi operator is one of the many hats he wears, along with fishing guide and proprietor.

We wind up the day with a provisioning trip to the tiny general store and head 'home' to cook dinner in our snug cottage. The next day we're meeting Sheryl and John Mass, operators of Broken Islands Adventure Tours.

Photo 5. Coast Guard sign

The day dawns brightly and we head into Barkley Sound aboard their 27' vessel to explore the Broken Islands and to look for bears, whales and sea lions. Our 3-hour tour stretches into 4 as we linger to watch two humpback whales feeding, to snap photos of sea lions, and to study two beachcombing black bears. Surfing in the Pacific's massive rollers, I gulp salt-water-scented air so sweet I can feel it down to my toes. We even have time to snugly circumnavigate a few of the 100+ uninhabited islands that make up that kayaker's nirvana, the Broken Island Group. The traditional territory of the Nuu-chah-nulth people for thousands of years, these deserted islands shelter many important archaeological sites and middens, some off limits.

The next day we re-board the Frances Barkley, on a sunny May return that stretches like spandex. Experiencing life on the coast the way it was once lived, we mind not a bit that the return trip is two hours longer.


" Vancouver Island ferry schedule. .

" Port Alberni visitor centre.

" Frances Barkley's schedule.

" Overnighting Port Alberni, the Somass Motel.

" In Bamfield.

" For whale watching and nature cruises or kayaking. .

PHOTOS by Cherie Thiessen

1. Brady's Beach
2. Aboard the Frances Barkley
3. Frances Barkley arriving at West Bamfield dock
4. The boardwalk on West Bamfield
5. Coast Guard sign

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