In the cab of Alberni Pacific Railway's No. 7, a small, tough logging locomotive that has spent its 82 years on Vancouver Island, Canada, George Williamson — at 78, nearly as old as the engine — notched out the throttle. In the fireman's seat was his son, Pat, not a young man himself. Nor was I, returning to a locomotive cab in which I'd ridden in 1969, when I'd wangled a ride out of the forest when this locomotive was hauling logs. Now it was toting tourists, and my cab ride was available for a modest extra fare.
We were headed upgrade on the six-mile run from the 1911 Port Alberni depot to McLean Mill, a steam-powered sawmill — since 1989 a National Historic Site — which is fired up routinely to show visitors how the business of logging and lumbering was conducted. With the Alberni Valley Museum and the Maritime Discovery Centre, the mill and the train make up the Alberni Valley Heritage Network. These, as well as sailing out the Alberni Inlet on the Frances Barkley and hiking in Pacific Rim National Park Reserve, more than filled our days on this forested island off the coast of British Columbia.
Most passengers made the rail trip to the mill in open-air coaches, chilly on this foggy morning. Blankets were provided, but I, of course, was toasty warm in the locomotive's enclosed cab. George made its whistle sing, and the chugging exhaust was a repetitive downbeat as we climbed out of the Beaver Creek Valley.
After crossing a pair of wooden trestles and steaming through a lush rain forest and across rolling farms, we pulled up to the platform at the mill, where we were greeted by the Tin Pants Theatre Co., young actors who sing and dance the history of Vancouver Island lumbering. (Its name comes from loggers' slang for canvas rain pants. When dried by the fire, they were stiff enough to stand on their own.)
R.B. McLean Lumber Co., opened in 1926 and shut in 1965, was a small, family-run operation. The McLeans' proclivity for old ways and old machinery made the mill with its 30 outbuildings a natural for preservation. The mill pond and dam have been reconstructed, and the steam-powered sawmill has been fully restored and even produces some lumber for sale.
The mill wasn't operating the day I visited, but I could walk the platforms circling the sprawling wooden building and follow the path a log takes as it's hauled from the mill pond, moved on a log carriage through the head saws that cut it into slabs and the edger that trims it into boards, before being cut to standard length by the trim saw. All this is powered by steam generated from waste sawdust.
Though a West Coast port on Vancouver Island, Port Alberni lies closer to the island's eastern shore because of the substantial reach of Alberni Inlet, the quirk that led to Alberni's importance in the first place. Our second day in town we headed down that inlet on the Frances Barkley.
After an ample breakfast at Cedar Wood Lodge, our garden-girded bed and breakfast, we headed for Harbour Quay, just a block from the train depot. We had dined there the previous night at the Water's Edge Restaurant, with a good view of the Santa Francisca, a ship laden with mill-bound lumber. Now the Barkley was loading a different cargo: canoes and kayaks bound for Sechart Lodge, which lacks road access.
The no-nonsense nature of the Barkley — built as a ferry in 1958 in Stevanger, Norway — was, I thought, central to its charm, and my wife, Laurel, agreed. She'd skipped the locomotive ride the day before but was happily on board as we cast off just after 8 a.m.
It was cloudy and chilly, but we stayed on deck, though there was a comfortable lounge with good windows for viewing. By 9:30 the morning had unfolded into a Kodachrome day. Off came raincoats, then vests. We threaded through a flotilla of pleasure boats fishing for sockeye salmon. Tugs darted around a boom of corralled logs, worrying it like mother hens.
The thrum of diesels was soothing, the sun warm on our faces, the surrounding hills green and lovely. As the Alberni Inlet opened into the Imperial Eagle Channel, we detoured to chase humpback whales. Soon we eased up to the dock at Sechart, where canoes, kayaks and gear were offloaded. Then we were off to Ucluelet, brushing the Broken Group Islands.
In the ship's coffee shop we lunched on broccoli soup with ham (the galley also offers full cooked breakfasts). The Barkley motored past fishing boats to dock at Ucluelet, where our friends stood waving. We disembarked, giving up the return voyage.
The trade-off was a visit to the seaside resort town of Tofino, with stops on the way for hikes in Pacific Rim National Park. One was through a rain forest, deep and dark and otherworldly, with wooden walkways that dropped us into a woody vale. To finish, we hiked the Great Pacific Trail. Full of craggy seashore vistas, it led to the Amphitrite Lighthouse, which has done its best to warn vessels away from a coast notorious for shipwrecks.
The following morning, we touched the final bases of the Alberni heritage quartet. There wasn't much to the Maritime Discovery Centre, but the Alberni Valley Museum has a rich collection reflecting all aspects of the region's material culture. Following the practice of "visible storage," it places a high percentage of its holdings on display.
Of course, the museum featured logging and the sea, closing the thematic circle of our visit to this remote part of North America.