Welcome Sign Alert Bay, Photo: Kim Walker

Island Hopping on Northern Vancouver Island, BC: Port McNeill to Alert Bay

By Kimberly Walker

In a recent blog we embraced laid back “island time” with a trip to Malcolm Island – known for its early 1900s Finnish utopian settlement called Sointula. Today, our island hopping continues with another worthy Northern Gulf Island: Cormorant Island, better known as Alert Bay.

Totem at Alert Bay
Totem at Alert Bay

As we mentioned last time, Port McNeill serves as an excellent launching point to explore both Malcolm and Cormorant Islands. BC Ferries serves both islands and the Visitor Centre in Port McNeill can help you plan your trip in order to take advantage of the looping nature of the route and reduce your ferry costs. Two islands, one price! (Check out Port McNeill for accommodations in the area).

If you are heading from Malcolm Island to Cormorant Island (as we did), you first have to return to Port McNeill – but make sure you let the deck attendant know that your ultimate destination is Cormorant Island. A simple loop through the terminal will see you back on the ferry (facing the other direction!) and heading for Alert Bay.

U’Mista Cultural Centre, Alert Bay

Alert Bay is probably best known for the internationally recognized U’mista Cultural Centre. U’mista was founded in 1980 in order to house and display a remarkable collection of Kwakwa̱ka̱ʼwakw potlatch artifacts. The vast majority of the artifacts, including traditional masks and other regalia, in the centre have been returned to U’mista (which means ‘the return of something important’) after being seized by the government following an illegal potlatch in 1921.

Alert Bay, North Vancouver Island, BC

In Canada, the traditional First Nations potlatch ceremony was banned between 1885 and 1951; however, this important cultural practice continued to be carried out in secret in many communities. Many of the important cultural pieces now displayed at U’mista were sold to museums and private collectors around the world and it has been a decades-long project to bring these items back to their home communities.

Today, U’mista stands as a testament to the culture of the Kwakwa̱ka̱ʼwakw people. Permanent exhibits explore origin stories of various villages, the dynamic relationship between the Kwakwa̱ka̱ʼwakw and the environment, and both historical and contemporary objects. The museum also hosts a variety of travelling exhibits. When I visited, a fascinating look at the life and legacy of Indigenous rights advocate and actor Chief Dan George was on display.

No visit to Alert Bay would be complete without taking in a performance by the Tʼsasała Cultural Group. This group performs traditional Kwakwaka’wakw dances for the public every Thursday, Friday, and Saturday afternoon in July and August. It is well worth it to plan your trip in order to take in one of these performances for both the amazing performance and the unique opportunity to visit the inside of the ‘Namgis Traditional Big House where the performance takes place.

Big House

The ‘Namgis Traditional Big House was opened in 1999 after arson destroyed the community’s previous big house. Whether or not you attend a dance performance, the big house is well worth a visit during your trip to Alert Bay as the building is covered in beautiful traditional artwork and adjacent to the big house is the world’s largest totem pole, which stretches far into the sky and is sure to make you feel tiny by comparison.

For those wanting to stretch their legs, the Alert Bay waterfront offers a beautiful seaside walkway featuring several totem poles and covered rest stops with benches and beautiful and intricate carvings. The boardwalk extends from the downtown area out to the U’mista Cultural Centre and makes for a lovely afternoon stroll.

Boardwalk, Alert Bay

Another worthy destination while visiting Alert Bay is the original ‘Namgis burial grounds which has an incredible collection of totem poles. There are excellent views of the totems from the road, which makes it easy to respectfully view the site.

Burial Grounds

In addition to the wealth of cultural experiences available, Alert Bay is also home to some worthy natural attractions. The ocean-side setting provides ample opportunity for wildlife viewing and numerous walking trails on the island allow visitors to get in touch with nature.

The Alert Bay Ecological Park provides a walk back in time to the late 19th century when a boggy part of the island was dammed in order to provide water for a salmon saltery. Hindsight is 20-20, and predictably, this damming had a devastating effect on the natural environment. Before long, the forest had largely rotted away and today a boardwalk through the wetlands allows an up-close view of the culturally modified trees, wild cranberries, and birds that now call this area home.

Whether you come for the rich cultural heritage or the beautiful natural scenery, Alert Bay is excellent for a day trip or an extended stay when island hopping around Northern Vancouver Island.

Go to Island Hopping on Northern Vancouver Island, BC: Port McNeill to Sointula for more on Kimberly’s trip.

Check out Port McNeill for accommodations in the area

Share your BC travel pictures using hashtag #travelinbc

Published: May 30, 2019

Kimberly Walker

About the Author

Kimberly is a Special Education, Elementary School teacher in Hope, BC. Previously having worked ten years at the Hope Visitor Centre & Museum promoting tourism in Hope and British Columbia, Kimberly worked on many local history projects in the museum as well as researching and writing articles for the local newspaper. Kimberly loves travelling with her husband Dale and their dog Alpine. In the fall of 2014, they spent the first 78 days of married life travelling and camping their way across Canada - just the two of them and the dog - travelling in a Hyundai Elantra! Kimberly loves various outdoor recreation types and exploring our beautiful province.

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