Travel blog – Vancouver to Yukon part 7 – Juneau to Kitimat

Sunday morning I checked out of the hotel in Juneau and went to the ferry docks (not far from the hotel) to check in.  I was quite early, so I had already decided to go and grab lunch before queuing up to get on to the ferry, and asked what time I needed to be back. I was told 2:30 PM, and that the ferry was leaving at 4:30 PM, which seemed funny to me but I didn’t realise why until later.

Since it was around 10:30AM, I headed back to downtown Juneau, and looked again at my ferry ticket.  I eventually figured out that the person behind the counter was looking at the 24h timing, incorrectly subtracted 10 hours instead of 12, and had actually meant I had to be back by 12:30 for a 2:30 (though, really, 2:00) departure. Fortunately I did figure this out as we left before 2PM!

Anyways, a cruise ship had arrived in town, and it was also a Sunday. So downtown Juneau was completely different – all the businesses that had been open the day before were now closed (because it was Sunday) and the ones that had been closed the day before were now open (because a cruise ship was in town).  It was like a completely different city from the day before.  I didn’t spend much time (as I didn’t end up having much time), but I grabbed lunch and headed back to the ferry.

The ferry ride itself, two days long, was sort of average.  The journey is quite scenic but eventually water and mountains become uninteresting, or at least monotonous, and it was overcast most of the first day and a half.  I fortunately had some books with me, so I learned all sorts of things about Canadian federalism up to about 10 years ago (the book was old).  I also watched some Q&A (I fell behind over the summer), and played a lot of Angry Birds.

I had also booked a cabin and was very thankful I did – I made the mistake about 5 years ago of taking a ferry from Newfoundland to Nova Scotia without a cabin and the lack of anywhere to sleep was awful… this trip, in contrast, was quite pleasant.  The one big disappointment was that the Alaska Marine Highway System provides virtually nothing in the way of vegetarian food options.  I “cheat” when I have to, so I did, but it was still disappointing.

The weather did clear later on the second day (the only full day of the journey), at just the right time.  We passed through a very narrow stretch of the Inside Passage and it was fascinating to see how the ferry navigated through the area and all the infrastructure (by which I mostly mean a series of well-placed buoys) that had been established to accomplish it.  I got to see a whale briefly which was a pleasant surprise – it looked almost dolphin-like though so based on the guides on the ship it was likely some sort of beaked whale.

The next day I was only awake for a few hours before we got into the port of Prince Rupert, which has a surprising amount of Chinese restaurants.  As we pulled in and my Canadian cell phone started working again, I discovered a voicemail from the Alaska Marine Highway System notifying me that I’d been told the wrong time to return to the ferry docks… I thought I had given them my US cell number but obviously not!  Fortunately I had, indeed, figured out the right time to arrive.

I grabbed lunch and coffee in Prince Rupert and headed inland, stopping for a brief (an hour or so) hike at Butze Rapids. This was a pleasant detour and I wish I’d had more time – it’s a walk through the rainforest where, in theory, the ultimate attraction is a set of rapids that reverse directions twice a day when the tide is switching from high to low or vice-versa. There was no signage explaining when precisely that was so I didn’t know whether or not to stick around, but the walk there and back was quite nice.  The rainforest vegetation was just beautiful.

From there, I drove straight to Terrace and hung a left towards the Nisga’a Memorial Lava Bed Park.  Long story short, the Nisga’a people had been living in this area until about 250 years ago a volcano erupted and buried the town. Those that remained (or, rather, their descendants) still live in the area, but there is a massive area with a somewhat lunar landscape that’s still there today, despite some pioneering plants working their way back in.  Unfortunately, everything was poorly signposted and I kept ending up going further down the road than intended which wasted a lot of time as turnarounds were few and far between.  I only ended up stopping a couple of times for photos but the experience was still surreal.  It’s so interesting to me that I’d seen so many different examples of vulcanism in New Zealand but nothing that even remotely resembled this.  And in Canada, of all places – I don’t associate Canada with volcanoes at all!

All the detours and random drives along highways I didn’t intend to be on made me rather late for getting into my ultimate destination for the evening, Kitimat, but I got in at an almost reasonable hour and the host at my B&B didn’t seem to mind at all.

Wednesday I had a delightful chat with my B&B host (I stayed at Cast Away B&B, which I highly recommend) while eating a generous breakfast, and then headed out for some exploring in Kitimat.  I made a brief stop at Heritage Park and got a refresher (beyond what the local guide books were telling me – the CAA guide says virtually nothing but there are some local tourist brochures) on the town’s history.  For those who don’t know: Haisla First Nation land going back ages, spotted by George Vancouver when he charted BC’s coast, some brief mining activity at the turn of the 20th century, then earmarked by Alcan in the late 40s as a site for aluminum production due to a nearby river that could be dammed to produce the required electricity cheaply.  Alcan used the “Garden City” urban planning strategy to develop an entire city near its facility (done mostly in the 50s), to ensure a stable and consistent workforce.  The city now has a regular population of just under 10,000 people.

This planning model is actually quite unique and yielded some intentional and some unintentional results.  The main thoroughfares are actually pedestrian paths (which can easily be used by bicycles, and often are), with the roads designed to serve as back laneways, with the major exception of the highway that runs into and through town.  This plan was often ignored by residents (who were encouraged to buy, not rent, their homes from Alcan) who built fences around the part of their house that faced the pathways and left the back of the houses (which face the roads) open, effectively inverting the whole plan.  The “downtown” is actually a shopping centre called City Centre Mall, not unlike the shopping centres built in small city downtowns across Canada at the time.  Also interesting is that there is virtually no public waterfront – the entire port is owned by Alcan (or other private entities that have since acquired the land) – despite Kitimat being situated at the end of a beautiful fjord.  There is some (minimal) waterfront access in the first nation (Haisla) village, Kitamaat Village, which is a short drive away.  Since it was developed, Alcan has encouraged the town to become self-sufficient and to diversify its economy.  In this sense, it has been (somewhat) successful, as there are various other industrial activities in town, including chemical facilities and various fossil fuel processing facilities.  While the paper mill shut down a number of years ago, there is currently one natural gas facility being built with two more on the way, and if the Northern Gateway pipeline is actually built by Enbridge then Kitimat will either be home to a tarsands oil refinery or to a port that fills ships with the bitumen directly.

The results of all this are weird – even though the plan was to have Kitimat be a place where everybody walks, everybody drives because it is small enough that drives into nearby cities are often necessary, and because if you live far enough from the city centre walking is impractical (not to mention there are many local bears, and the winters get incredibly cold – or at least, they did until recent years).  That, and the jobs are all in a section of town (which unfortunately is upwind from where people live) that hosts industrial activity almost exclusively, which is not walkable from any of the residential neighbourhoods.  Another interesting result is based on its location – Kitimat is a great place to go fishing due to its location at the mouth of a river, so this heavily industrialised place is a fishing destination for people all across the continent – I’ve met at least one or two people who moved there primarily for that reason.

Anyway, with all that context (there was so much more that I learned about the town and I’m still processing all of it in my head – there are so many urban planning successes and failures here all wrapped into one!), I continued along the highway to Coghlin Park which has a view point of some of the town and one of the best views of the Douglas Channel.  I stopped for some viewing and some photos, and continued on down the road to the city centre – which I didn’t realise until arriving was just a big shopping centre.  After passing it and expecting a high street to follow, and finding none, I continued on to my other destination: Giant Spruce & Kitimat River. The brochures said to park at the nearby community centre and walk, but I discovered only after doing so that I totally could have parked by the spruce trees directly.  Nevertheless, the walk was nice enough.  The giant spruce, however, was mostly dead – taken out by a windstorm a number of years ago. The others that remained were quite beautiful. The river was also nice, though bounded by a number of industrial sites.

My next destination was Hospital Beach, the other place you can get any sort of view of Douglas Channel.  Apparently, though I only found this out later through talking to someone, I passed a sign notifying me that the road to get there was a private road belonging to Alcan and was (at least temporarily) only open to employees. I didn’t see this sign (so maybe it wasn’t there, and the person who suggested it was incorrect, or more likely I was not paying enough attention) – so I kept driving.  The tourist maps suggest to get to the beach you drive just past the Alcan site and it’s on the left.  Well, it was.  As was a giant sign saying it was closed.  Apparently Alcan is expanding, and this process has made the beach unsafe, or something.  Either way, all I could do was turn around and drive back.  Strangely, this “private” road (which is apparently fully owned by Alcan) is still on many “public” maps so the whole thing was unclear.  Nevertheless, I turned back.  Driving there and back was somewhat fascinating though – the entire road is lined with industrial sites including the huge new “Kitimat Modernization Project” which is Alcan’s upgraded facility.

I stopped briefly on the way back into town to visit the “Services” neighbourhood, which is now not very full of services, but has a beautiful old (and abandoned-looking) Canadian National rail station, including a very old logo painted on the side.  I stopped for some photos and then headed back “downtown” to have lunch at the mall.  From there I made a stop at the Kitimat Museum which gave me more insight into the city’s history (see above), and had a wonderful gallery of art by local artists. There was a series of works done by an artist using reclaimed materials (including fenceposts and discarded clay) and they were individually selling for $25 – I couldn’t resist and bought one!

From there I headed to the Pine Creek Trail (very clearly marked as a trail but accessibly only by a semi-private road with no parking facilities – very rustic!), and followed it to its end and back.  Fortunately, I encountered no bears, but rather enjoyed the dense rainforest trail!

After that, I met up with a friend I met on Twitter earlier this year and, after a brief stop at his union hall to check out a mural from the town’s early days, we went for a walk along one of the pedestrian “circles” in town.  It was interesting to get a glimpse into this urban planning experiment – ultimately I agree with other commentators that Kitimat is a suburb without a city.  That said, it’s somehow better than that – there are certainly problems in the design, but there are definitely some things that work, and the footpaths through large green spaces were definitely a great feature.

We then grabbed dinner at SeaMasters restaurant in Kitamaat Village, where I finally got a good view of the beautiful Douglas Channel.  The waterfront is gorgeous and it’s a shame there’s not more opportunity to access it.  It was great to finally meet up with someone I’d been chatting with for quite some time now and it’s always awesome to get local knowledge of a place!

Kitimat is such a fascinating place – I’m still processing all the concepts going on there, from industrialisation to urban planning and from shipping to fishing.

I’m slowly uploading photos too – this section of the trip is in Part 2, but I’m also adding to Part 1.

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