48 Hours in Prince Rupert, British Columbia
At first, the tiny secluded airport on Digby Island made me laugh out loud. In a good way.
Located off the coast of Prince Rupert, British Columbia, about 40 miles south of Alaska, Digby Island was a desolate landmass, my kind of place, so I smiled with unflinching approval. The island contained only two villages, neither of which had vehicle access to the airport. There was only one runway and no air traffic controllers. The handful of airport employees took the ferry in from Prince Rupert, as did anyone flying in or out. Travelers were not allowed to go anywhere else on the island.
Only a few regularly-scheduled passenger flights arrived each day – one from Hawk Air and two from Air Canada Jazz. An extra passenger flight landed on Saturdays. Charter planes also used the facility for fishing expeditions.
Inside the terminal, just one large room, I didn’t even see a clock anywhere. A connected row of faded plastic orange chairs, circa Taco Bell 1975, sat in front of one window, overlooking the small runway. Another row faced the opposite window by the front entrance.
Two counters existed for the two airlines. A three-foot model seaplane hung suspended from the ceiling. Tourist brochures occupied a few dusty shelves.
In the middle of the room, a coffee machine sat on top of a small beat-up table that butted up against a post. A hand-written sign — “Coffee. One Dollar” — hung off the side of the table. Next to the machine, I saw a metal coffee can with a plastic cover that had a slit cut into it. I dropped a one-collar coin into the can and grabbed a small Styrofoam cup to pour myself a portion. There were no lids.
There wasn't much else. A solitary totem pole stood in one corner of the airport, since this part of Northern British Columbia was home to the Tsimshian first nations and Digby Island was supposedly the former birthplace of Txamsem, their equivalent of the Raven.
To kill a few minutes I wandered into a side room where a few broken fixtures were being stored. A half-empty bookshelf offered books for free. Many were library discards. A long hallway led towards the airport administration office. A hand-painted retro poster for Alaska Airlines graced one wall.
After twenty minutes, the PA system beckoned us to board the school buses outside, our transportation to the ferry dock. At the curb outside, two buses, one traditional yellow and one royal blue, waited for the 23 Jazz passengers, including myself, to deposit our luggage in the back of a third vehicle, a white cargo van. People began to mingle about as they waited for the buses to open their doors. I opt for the blue school bus. It just seemed more colorful. Yellow school buses brought back too many rotten memories.
From there, we drove a few miles, in the rain, through misty green forested environs to the ferry dock, where the buses and the cargo van slowly lodged themselves onto the ferry, which then floated for 20 minutes to the town of Prince Rupert, on the other side of the water.
After arriving on the other side, the vehicles disembarked and motored down the road for another mile before dumping all of us in front of the Highliner Inn, a crumbling rectangular post-Brutalism bunker of a building jutting up into the sky. It was the only tall building in the whole town. A dilapidated blue awning with thrice-painted-over lettering extended out above the sidewalk, flanked by a Greyhound bus office and a place called Cowlicks Hair Studio. This was the everyday point of pick-up and drop-off for airport passengers and this whole process was the only way to get from the airport to Prince Rupert. Anyone else would say this looked like the cover of a country & western album. But to me it was more like ‘70s light rock. I kept looking for a dude with a big Jim Croce-style mustache, a flannel shirt, weathered steel-toe boots and a beat-up acoustic guitar, singing about life on the road.
But I wasn’t doing the town justice by imagining the ghosts of Jim Croce. Or Gordon Lightfoot. Although a throwback to more simple times, Prince Rupert became somewhat of a hamlet on the water as I spent a few days. Components of the town were ramping up to accommodate a growing cruise-port industry, while other structures were dated and hadn’t evolved for decades. Fine seafood eateries comfortably subsisted right alongside rundown façades and empty buildings. The incongruity was fantastic.
Even better, indigenous Tsimshian imagery permeated everything. The Museum of Northern British Columbia featured many displays, artifacts and treasures, all located in a Northwest Coast-style First Nations longhouse. The selection of books in the gift shop was almost worth the price of admission alone. Several volumes of Pacific Northwest Coast Art, including the writings of the iconic artist Bill Reid, highlighted the collection.
But since I required more abandonment, I made it down the coast a few miles to the desolate labyrinth known as the North Pacific Cannery, an expansive multiplex straddling the Skeena River where several dozen buildings sat suspended above the water on cylindrical wood pilings. The main building had been transformed into a visitors’s office and makeshift museum.
Established in 1889, the complex had operated for almost a century and was now the oldest fish cannery on the West Coast of North America. Much of it remained intact, but parts were falling off into the ocean, so locals were banding together and raising funds to ensure the whole place got properly restored.
Upon my visit, on a day when no one else was around, the cannery seemed to go on forever. The manager of conservation and operations, Steve Milum, walked me through a never-ending maze of warehouses, ramshackle boardwalks, wooden pathways, ancient administrative offices, rusted tanks and other sordid structures, schooling me on the comprehensive history and ecology of the British Columbia fishing industry.
Components of the complex were adequately fixed up and converted into museum-style displays for public tours, but much more money needed to be raised for the place to achieve full restoration, Milum told me. Nevertheless, the cannery presented an eye-popping throwback to a century ago, when hundreds of canneries occupied the coast of Western Canada.
As we skulked about the wreckage, I scoped out industrial butchering machines, a net loft, rows of former sleeping quarters, a mess hall, a bunkhouse and an aromatic reduction plant, plus numerous other buildings in various states of decay. Snowcapped peaks commandeered the skyline, while cedar and hemlock forests multiplied across the landscape. The scenario conveyed a triple shot of abandonment, isolation and loneliness I found to be downright inspiring.
A couple days later, I wheeled my luggage down the cracked sidewalk and joined several airport-bound travelers in front of the Highliner Inn at 8am on a Sunday. A few of them decided to grab some breakfast inside the restaurant while leaving their bags in the corner by the Greyhound office. Others merely waited outside with cups of coffee from a nearby Tim Horton’s. Other than us, the streets were completely empty.
After the same white cargo van rolled up, we deposited our luggage. This time the school bus was a white one. Maybe the blue and yellow vehicles weren’t available on Sundays.
Finally, again came the wonderful desolation of the Digby Island Airport. While boarding the Jazz plane to Vancouver, I understood that my visit to Prince Rupert had not been long enough. It could be a great town at which to shack up for a few months and bang out a novel. I vowed to return and do just that. The coffee machine, the cargo van and the Highliner Inn will probably still be there.