Monday, February 17, 2020

Prince Rupert Loop

Nisga'a town of Gitwinksihlkw, northeast of Prince Rupert, BC

Nass Valley, BC

Autumn brings the search for gold -- golden trees, that is.  Inspired by our original legendary and questionably-intelligent trip to the Arctic Circle (the trip itself was brilliant; the timing and mode of transportation were the questionable part), we once again packed up the Prius for our fourth annual Canada trek, anticipating the beauty of the western provinces and hoping for the gold of deciduous trees in autumn.  We were not disappointed.  British Columbia was as breath-taking as remembered -- an entire province worthy of national park status in all of its settings.  We lucked out on timing with fall colors this year, stumbling across swaths of golden deciduous trees, sharing the stage with the evergreens, like Easter eggs nestled in dark green hills.  This year, we headed up the coast to Prince Rupert, on a route similar to what the BC Tourism Board has cleverly packaged as the Inside Passage Circle Tour.

Ferry to Vancouver Island

Similar to last year's Bella Coola Loop, we began by driving north from Seattle, crossing over to Vancouver Island, spending the night in Nanaimo, befoew driving north to Port Hardy to catch the BC ferry.  Unlike the previous year's trip, we didn't spend any time on the journey northward, pausing only to ascertain that the ferry crossing was gorgeous and that Nanaimo, with its mouth-watering  bakery, would be a great place to live.

At the northern shore of Vancouver Island, we boarded the ferry to Prince Rupert.  Although it required more driving, the BC ferry from Port Hardy was significantly cheaper and had a better schedule than the Alaska Marine Highway ferry from Bellingham, WA.  Since the ferry trip was overnight, we booked a cabin.  We spent most of the journey outside on the rear of the boat, watching the scenery.  The boat traveled past green forested hills with many waterfalls.  On one of the narrow beaches, a large elephant seal was sunning himself.  In the water, porpoises played, and humpback whales journeyed south.

Passing by open water the first night, the seas were rough for a few hours.  Because of this, the elevators were closed.  Luckily, we were forewarned of this, so I made sure I was on the floor that our cabin was on. The accessible cabin on the ferry was perhaps the best in terms of accessibility that I've seen in any hotel.  

BC ferry from Pt Hardy to Prince Rupert
After a peaceful night and calm day, we pulled into Prince Rupert.   We were greeted by a huge port, with cranes busy un/loading containers between trains and ships.  As we later learned, the Port of Prince Rupert is the third largest in Canada -- soon to surpass Vancouver and become the second, after Montreal.  It boasts the deepest harbor and the shortest route to Asia (saving three days over Vancouver).  This information was shared with us several times; I'm sure the excitement was only compounded with the decline of the fish canning industry.

Hanging out on the back deck at our cabin at
Cassiar Cannery

We drove through town, picking up groceries at a large supermarket, before driving about 30 minutes on to Port Edward.  After the paved road turned bumpy, we reached the Cassiar Cannery -- an old cannery that has been converted to several guest cabins overlooking the Skeena River.  Each of the lovingly restored cabins is located on the shore of the river, with a deck and a view out the back.

North Pacific Cannery
We took a guided tour of the North Pacific Cannery near Port Edwards.  Most of the site was accessible, and there were only a couple of cabins/displays that a wheelchair couldn't reach.  (There was even an accessible stall in the restroom, which was twice as large as the others, but, unfortunately, it had no bars.)  In the second half of the 1900's, safety regulations required production facilities to install sterile concrete, which was prohibitively expensive.  This change, along with mechanization, improved freezing techniques, and changing tastes led to cannery consolidation and relocation, spelling the end of BC's residential wooden canneries on stilts over the water.

Trail to Butze Rapids

Prince Rupert, with over 8 feet of rain per year, is Canada's wettest city.  Indeed. except for a few scattered hours of sunny blue skies, it rained the entire time we were there!  Due to the weather, we weren't able to tackle any of the local trails, but I did stop in at the Visitor Information Centre to ask about accessible trails.  I was told that the loop trails and trail to the rapids at Butze Rapids were accessible to wheelchairs, as was the best hike in Prince Rupert -- the Rushbrook Trail.  We'll have to return in the short months of summer -- when the skies tends to be less rainy -- to confirm this advice.

Prince Rupert, along Atlin Terminal

We spent a rainy afternoon in the small downtown of Prince Rupert, exploring the views from the short boardwalk next to the (accessible) Atlin Terminal with its retail shops.   We stopped for lunch and a hot drink at Cowpuccino (accessible washroom) and for information at the Visitor Information Centre (the accessible washroom had been turned into a storage closet, but the men's and women's washrooms had accessible stalls).

Skeena River between Prince Rupert and Terrace

We then drove from Prince Rupert to Terrace in the last downpour of our trip.

Nissga'a Memorial Lava Beds

The following day, we cast aside our plans for a day trip to Kitimat in favor of a local recommendation to head north through the Nisga'a Lava Beds.  A fortunate stroke of serendipity!  We've travelled quite a bit, so we've seen quite a variety of spectacular geography.  This trip, however, introduced us to new and unexpected sites, stunning scenery, cultural and historical learning, animal life, and a welcome and unanticipated focus on accessibility.

Lava Beds
This fantastic scenery and day tour were made possible by a terrible tragedy.  Approximately 250 years ago, a lava flow from Canada's last volcanic eruption decimated the surrounding land and two Nisga'a (First Nation) villages, killing over 2000 people.  Today, the Nisga'a have developed a self-guided auto tour through this amazing natural landscape, starting north of Terrace, driving through the Nass Valley, and ending at the coastal village of Gingolx.   The tour goes past the lava beds, a provincial park dedicated to the Nisga'a people, Nisga'a villages, totem poles, and a museum. 

Trail to Vetter Falls

Gingolx: end of the auto tour at the Pacific coast

I can not recommend this tour highly enough!  The visitor's center, museum, and several trails are all wheelchair accessible, there are accessible outhouses and washrooms along the way, and the self-guided auto tour map designates and explains accessibility on the route.  To top it off, this was our best wildlife viewing from the car.  As we approached the end of the road near the coast, Ted was lamenting that we hadn't yet seen his second favorite boreal animal -- the porcupine.  Within minutes, we saw three different quilled specimens waddling on or beside the road!

Telegraph Point rest stop along
the Skeena River

The next day we drove back westward along the Skeena River to see the views on a clear day.  It had just snowed in the mountains, so the gold trees shimmering on a white background made a beautiful day even more so.

Exchamisiks River trail

We hiked at Exchamsiks River, west of Terrace.  This fabulous park, home to a campground being re-forested, includes a short, accessible loop trail on a mossy, partially paved road through old-growth Sitka spruce, salmon berry plants, birch trees, and devil's club plants.  We took a short side-trip down to the river, with a view of a bridge, rocky cliff, and waterfall.

After the hike and a short westward drive, we turned around and went to the east again.  Past Terrace we passed the turn-off for the Cassiar Highway, leading north to the Arctic Circle and flooding us with memories of adventures and beauty from the trip four years ago. It was a poignant reminder that the past doesn't always just end.

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We stopped in the town of Smithers -- a cute little touristy place, surrounded by majestic mountain scenery (and, I am told, some of the best fly fishing).  We enjoyed a leisurely  morning at the farmers market and lunch at Two Sisters Cafe (good food and an accessible washroom), and then we headed down the highway to the northern metropolis of Prince George.   As we drove, the mountains gave way to forests.   In Prince George we awoke to the putrid smell of a paper mill, triggering memories of my childhood in northern Wisconsin.

East of Prince George, we headed to the Ancient Forest.  We had discovered this gem on our previous trip north, and I am still amazed.   The accessible boardwalk meanders through old growth red cedar trees, alongside a stream.   The boardwalk ends at a small waterfall, and the entrance boasts picnic tables and a shelter, along with accessible outhouses.  The accessible hike was built by or with the foundation of Rick Hansen -- the "Man in Motion" from St Elmo's Fire.

Ancient Forest boardwalk

Ancient Forest endpoint

After our hike, we returned to the highway.  We made a brief stop at the bird refuge at the Nechako Riverside Park in Vanderhoof.  That was a disappointing tangent, since there were no accessible outhouses, no significant hiking trails (there was only a packed gravel trail along the water), and -- sadly -- no birds, except for crows.

Mt Robson
We drove eastward, as the forests now gave way to mountains, and we entered the edge of the Rocky Mountains.  We made a side-trip to Mt Robson, the highest peak in the Canadian Rockies.  There, we followed the Berg Lake trail through the trees, along a rushing river; it was hard-packed and wide, with occasional mountain views, but it was quite steep, and we had to spend too much time and energy battling big rocks, meaning we turned around after only thirty minutes -- luckily, that allowed us to get to a mountain viewpoint in time to watch the sunset colors

We spent the night in the cute mountain town of Valemount, then we headed south.

Helmecken Falls in Wells-Gray Provincial. Park

We tried -- unsuccessfully -- to find moose off of the side roads, and we finally drove into Wells-Gray Provincial Park, where a long road led to a spectacular view of the majestic Helmcken Falls  We spent the night in Clearwater.

Othello Tunnels Trail at
Coquihalla Provincial Park
The next day, we continued southward, stopping at Coquihalla Canyon Provincial Park near Hope, BC to hike one of my favorite trails, the Othello Tunnels Trail.  The trail is closed in winter due to the danger of falling rock, but it is exactly the rock that makes this trail special during the rest of the year.  The hard-packed (usually) gravel path travels next to the sheer rock cliffs of the raging Coquihalla River as the path passes through 4 former train tunnels (bring a headlamp) in the woods.  I once saw another woman hiking in a manual chair with a Free Wheel; it was feasible, but she envied my Freedom Chair when struggling through the few spots of loose gravel.

After the hike, we headed back to the US, to Seattle, to regular life, and to appointments and  commitments.  I'm sure we'll be back for another tour of the colors next autumn, and I have a feeling we'll be back in this magical province long before then!

Accessibility along the route

1. BC Ferries:
En Suite washroom on BC Ferry
from Port Hardy to Prince Rupert
Sleeping cabin on BC Ferry
from Port Hardy to Prince Rupert

Both the ferry from Tsawassen to Schwarz Bay and the ferry from Pt Hardy to Prince Rupert were accessible.  You should tell them you're disabled (bring a card or placard to show proof) before running the transaction to buy tickets, in order to receive a discount.  Then, hang your disabled placard on the rear-view mirror and flash your hazard lights to warn the ferry loaders that you have special needs.  You should be parked near the elevator, with room to maneuver to and with your wheelchair, although you may need to provide them instructions on your needs.   The ferries have an elevator from the car decks, which can take you to the lower passenger deck (coffee shop, gift shop, cafeteria, seating), the upper deck (inside and outside seating), and the deck with passenger cabins (Pt Hardy to Prince Rupert ferry).  There were unisex, single-stall disabled washrooms at various locations.  The amazing accessible sleeping cabin on the Pt Hardy to Prince Rupert ferry had plenty of room, no threshold, a triangle trapeze over one of the twin beds, a large and very accessible en suite washroom, complete with many grab bars, a roll-under sink, tilting mirror, shower with a pull-down seat and hand-held nozzle, and a toilet.

Rear deck on BC Ferry
from Port Hardy to Prince Rupert
Public washroom on BC Ferry
from Port Hardy to Prince Rupert

2. Accessible outhouses:

Accessible outhouse with ramp at
Telegraph Point rest stop along
Yellowhead Highway
"Accessible" outhouse
(if you can get there/in)
at Coquihalla Canyon
Provincial Park
The Yellowhead Highway (16), running from Prince Rupert through Prince George and beyond, is a major component of the Alaska Highway route; so -- perhaps not surprisingly -- there were fairly regular rest stops with outhouses designated as accessible.  Most were actually accessible, although many were accessible inside only -- large and with bars, but accessibility was denied by loose gravel and/or a raised floor.

3. Accessible washrooms: Accessible washrooms were relatively available, although they varied widely in meaning.  Good bets are museums, visitor's centers, gas stations, restaurants, and cafes.

Large "accessible" stall
without bars at
North Pacific Cannery
Accessible washroom at
Cowpuccino Cafe
in Prince Rupert

4. Lodging: Most tourist towns had at least one accessible room at some hotel, although it required research, advance booking, and direct phone calls to book one (even with all of that, at one hotel, a "definitely" ours accessible room had been given away by the time we arrived!). Here's where we stayed on the trip:

Ferndale, WA
Super 8
ADA room with high bed and space beside it
Large bathroom had toilet with horizontal grab bar, shower/tub combination with bars, a wheel-under skink

Grand Hotel  (north of town)
Wheelchair accessible room was not available, but clerk offered available room, which was partially accessible.  Entrance had no steps and wide doors.  Bed was low (same height as wheelchair), with space beside it.  Bathroom had short horizontal and vertical bars by toilet, walk-in shower with built-in bench and built-in shower head above.

Prince Rupert 
Cassiar Cannery (Port Edwards)

View from back deck of cabin
at Cassiar Cannery
Ramp across marsh to cabin
at Cassiar Cannery

Research shows that there were accessible hotel rooms in hotels at the Crest Hotel and the Inn at the Harbor. We chose to stay out of town at the cabins of an old fish cannery.  Each cabin an amazing view, with a deck overlooking the Inverness Canal. The owner had a great attitude toward making things accessible, taking out the bathroom vanity and removing the bathroom door to allow a wheelchair to enter and reach the toilet, and building a small ramp to get to the boardwalk that led to the cabin across the marsh.  Unfortunately, the bed was super-high.  The owner claims that he will soon renovate one of the cabins to be completely accessible. The location is beautiful, as long as you like the noise of passing trains!

En suite bathroom at Sandman
in Terrace

Queen bed was not not too high, with space to put wheelchair next to bed and get everywhere
The bathroom had a toilet with a horizontal bar one one side and a floor-to-ceiling pole on the other, and a tub/shower combination with hand held shower, shooter stool, and bars.
(This is the room that had been given away our first night)

Sunshine Inn
En suite shower at Sunshine Inn
in Smithers
En suite bathroom at Sunshine Inn
in Smithers
Accessible hotel with auto door and accessible room
Good height queen bed, with space beside bed and all over for wheelchair
Bathroom had roll-in shower with fold-down chair, hand-held shower, and bars; also toilet had horizontal bar on one side and vanity on other.

Prince George
Super 8 (north part of town)

Lobby at Prince George Super 8
Wacky tiki-themed first floor, with small pools and small kids, tropical plants, was dark, stuffy, and tired
Wheelchair accessible room had a perfect height queen bed, with space for a wheelchair beside it
En suite bathroom at
Prince George Super 8
Large bathroom had a vertical angled and horizontal bar beside toilet, and a walk-in shower with hand-held shower, fold down seat, and several bars (although they may have all been high)

Super 8
En suite bathroom at Valemount Super 8
Big room, king bed, space for wheelchair
En suite bath/shower at Valemount Super 8
Wide door to large bathroom, with roll-under sink, shower/tub combination with one angled bar, and toilet with no bar on either side.

Clearwater Lodge

En suite bathroom at Clearwater Lodge
En suite shower at Clearwater Lodge
Automatic door and inside ramps, leading to front desk, accessible washrooms, and 2 accessible rooms -- large, with two queen beds and lots of space by beds and in room. Large bathroom, with roll-under sink, toilet with horizontal and angled bar, and was curtained off as a no-threshold shower with shower chair and hand shower,

Hint about high beds.  At one hotel (of course, I've forgotten which), the bed was much too high.  I asked for a roll-away bed, which they provided, but the room was too small to set it up.  So, we took off the tall mattress from the htoel bed, and instead
where did I use the mattress from the rollaway bed?  it was firmer and the right height . (Terrace?)