A TRIP TO PORT ALICE by Syd Blackwell
In 1969, teaching positions were scarce in British Columbia. The baby-boomer graduates had arrived. I was fortunate enough to be offered a job, a tense three months after my graduation. It was in Port Alice. I accepted. But where was Port Alice and how would I get there?
I soon learned Port Alice was a logging, pulp mill community of 1500-ish located on Neroutsos Inlet, an arm of Quatsino Sound, near the northern end of Vancouver Island. It looked like it was difficult to get there by car, unless you could get a small ferry that went along the northeast side of the island. Sadly, the ferry was totally booked for months in advance. I had no choice but the difficult interior roads. I had less than a month to get ready for my trip from my family home in southeastern BC.
Thus it was that on a rainy August 27th, I found myself on the last leg of my journey, driving north up the winding Island Highway to Campbell River, already farther than I had ever been before on this giant island. From there, my route diverted west on graded gravel, wending its way around a massive lake and through Strathcona Provincial Park to tiny Gold River, then turned north for one hundred and ten miles of “active logging roads” to Port McNeill. There I would have the respite of a few miles of pavement before heading south on more dirt roads to find my new home on an isolated mist-shrouded inlet. The rains had not eased; the day was gloomy.
I should mention that I was driving a cute red Triumph TR-4 convertible, whose suitability vanished the moment I left Campbell River.
The real tricky bit of the trip was this logging road segment. Hours for public access were limited and even when allowed, it was necessary to follow the signage to remain on the safe roads; that is, roads not being used by giant logging trucks. The TR-4 had good tires and power, but it was low. I could feel contacts with the rutted, muddy road through the floorboards. My wipers provided only blurred windshield visibility. Rain beat on my fabric roof like a snare drum. Estimated driving time on this section was five or six hours.
Sometime before I reached Woss camp, the only habitation, I missed an important sign. The road began climbing quite steeply, but I powered up through the mud. Suddenly, a logging truck appeared, bearing down on me with lethal force. I pulled the steering wheel hard, and veered off into a watery ditch. The truck roared past.
I realized that I was not hurt, but that my car was nose-down into running water. I pushed open the door and climbed out into mud. Far down the hill, the brake lights of the logging truck glowed red through sheets of rain as it came to a halt. Then, slowly, the fully-loaded truck began backing up the grade to me.
The driver´s expletive-laden verbal assault questioned my vision, sanity, suicidal tendencies, and more. He was not pleased. He had already radioed for a road closure. He hooked a chain to my car, pulled it from the ditch and told me to try to start it. It started. I managed to get turned around without sliding back into the ditch and he ordered me to follow him until he turned right and then follow the pilot vehicle that would be waiting for me.
After Woss camp, I was allowed to proceed on my own again, but not without an admonishment to watch for further road signs. The rains continued. Eventually, I found pavement, ever so briefly, before the roller-coaster road into a dark and wet Port Alice. Checking in at the local hotel was a relief after ten and a half hours of difficult driving.
The first thing I wanted was a drink. Something strong. I went to the hotel lounge and ordered a rum and Coke. The server asked for my identification. The legal drinking age was 21. I was nearly 23, but always looked younger. I gave him my driving license, which, in those days, did not have a picture. The only other identification I owned was a gasoline credit card. He refused to serve me.
I was shocked. I just could not believe I would have a problem getting a legal drink. I tried explaining I was a new teacher. It did not work. I had to leave. Unsatisfied, I found dinner at the hotel restaurant. Then, I went to bed.
The next morning, I was still in my room when someone knocked. I opened the door to a man in a tweed jacket, white shirt, loose tie and raincoat. He extended his hand and said, “Hello, I ´m Ken, your principal.” Then he opened his raincoat to reveal a small flask in the inside pocket, before adding, “I heard you could use a drink.” Word spread quickly in this small town!
A bit later, we both went down to the office of the hotel manager. He greeted me with an apology for the eviction from the lounge. He then invited me to return to the lounge that evening for a couple of free rounds of drinks for me and my friends. I told him I didn´t have any friends in town, but my principal instantly draped his arm over my shoulders and said, “Oh yes, you do!”
My tortured journey to Port Alice was certainly a topic of conversation when I met my new friends for drinks that evening.
I taught in Port Alice for three years. The roads never improved. However, trips in better weather let me enjoy the outstanding, rugged, natural beauty of the wild north end of the island. Now, a beautiful paved highway from Campbell River bypasses those difficult roads I once drove.
Red = my route; light Orange = new highway; Blue = alternate road and ferry route
Add your comments about this story on the Blog page.