Get Outta Town: Village of Alert Bay

Words by Trish Weatherall
Photos by Boomer Jerritt

An experience in cultural, historical, and outdoor exploration, Alert Bay on Cormorant Island is a photographer’s delight. It takes you back in time with a harbour-front boardwalk, stilted wooden buildings circa early 1900’s, vibrant First Nations culture and the U’mista Cultural Centre, 16 km of trails, and the Alert Bay Ecological Park.

The boardwalk hosts magnificent views, shops, galleries, restaurants, inns, pubs, and the Alert Bay Visitor Centre with a wealth of information. There is also the Alert Bay Library-Museum with photographic displays and artifacts from the pioneer years—a time when Alert Bay was a thriving fishing village and prosperous supply centre for North Vancouver Island.

The Art Loft on the main floor of the historic Seine Boat Inn (operated by the Alert Bay Artists Society) features local artists’ mix of drawings, paintings, photography, jewelry, quilts, hand-knit items, and hand-felted hats.

Culture Shock Interactive Gallery and coffee shop features mainly one-of-a-kind authentic First Nations art, jewelry, and woven cedar bark items. You can also find high-end clothing with traditional First Nation’s fabric designs from designers Chloe Angus and Alano Edzerza. It also offers a ‘Namgis Roots experience of cedar weaving, Tlubukw traditional Salmon Barbeque, and Nusa Story Telling with Ada.

The story of the Alert Bay ‘Namgis of the Kwakwaka’wakw is both tragic and triumphant. Through relocation, residential schools, the banning of traditional potlatch ceremonies and language, and the selling off of ancient artifacts, the perseverance of the ‘Namgis in recent decades has helped them to reclaim their treasures and regain their culture.

Now they celebrate traditional culture in the community and with visitors through language, traditional dance, and the internationally renowned U’mista Cultural Centre. The museum at U’mista is beautifully curated with a solemn atmosphere that displays an original potlatch collection of masks and costumes that pre-date 1921. The gift shop offers authentic masks, carvings, paintings, and prints of many local Kwakwaka’wakw artists.
A short drive around the hilly island gives you an introduction to the Kwakwala language with stop signs that also read Wa’la, and several Kwakwala street names.

A few blocks north-west of the downtown area is the world’s tallest totem pole and the ‘Namgis Traditional bighouse, where ceremonies are held. During the months of July and August, the T’sasala Cultural Group dance in the bighouse every Thursday, Friday, and Saturday. This is the only time the bighouse is open for viewing.

East on Front Street/Fir Street take in the ‘Namgis sacred burial grounds and totem poles. Further east, view spectacular waterfront homes and park-like boulevards with beach access.

Hikers of all levels can enjoy the network of trails on this compact little island that’s roughly 4km by 1km. The easy, short, east side trails include a boardwalk through the ecological park (known locally as Gator Gardens), and an eerie and serene marsh ecosystem with towering skeletons of century-old cedars.

On the uninhabited west side of the island, difficult trails and steep elevations offer frequent rewards. The Gwa’yam (whale) trail has multiple openings onto deserted smooth stone beaches, sandy cliff overhangs, tunnels through towering salmonberry, huckleberry and salal, as well as a fishnet and driftwood hammock set up just above the shoreline. Plus, there is the added bonus of not having to worry about predatory bears, cougars, or wolves.

Back in town, I grab dinner at the down-to-earth Bayside Inn that offers a diverse menu, including seafood and Italian, Indian, and North American dishes. Friendly locals offered a garden tour, directions to trailheads, ferry advice, smiles, and great conversation.

I look forward to a return trip this summer. I’d like to witness the T’sasala Cultural Group dance in the bighouse, attend one of the art, food, and music events, try some of the eateries that I missed the first time around, spectate the Alert Bay 360 kayak race, and explore more of the trails. But no matter what I see and do, it will most certainly be an adventure.

For more information contact the Alert Bay Visitor Centre by email at info@alertbay.ca, or by phone at 250.974.5024