The dockside scene could have been Toronto in the 1880s, London in the Middle Ages, or almost any coastal community throughout history. People, goods, food and booze, passing back and forth from ship to shore. Shouts from the crew and captain to those unloading boxes and pallets of supplies. Happy greetings and departing travellers. But it’s 2022 – and it’s a scene that plays out whenever the MV Frances Barkley navigates the Alberni Inlet on Vancouver Island, B.C. But it was, not so long ago, a threatened ritual.
Tourists, weary West Coast Trail hikers, islanders, pallets of beer, couches, groceries, and the occasional fridge all make the journey on the MV Frances Barkley on her 80 kilometre route from Bamfield to Port Alberni. She is an essential connection for communities all along the inlet. And, like so many businesses, almost became another casualty of the pandemic.
Built in 1958 as a Norwegian ferry, in 1990 she began to serve the communities along the Alberni Inlet with the Lady Rose Marine Services. Much of Vancouver Island is remote, especially along the western edge. With deep fjords and inlets, and rough, dangerous – and in the case of Bamfield just recently, fatal – logging roads, maintaining connections to the outside world and bringing in essentials can be challenging. According to Mike Surrell, the general manager of Lady Rose Marine, “we are the only safe way to deliver passengers and freight to the many people who live in waypoints and the community of Bamfield.” In winter, he says, weather makes overland roads impassable. Boats are the only way to deliver medical supplies, building supplies, food and other important goods, as well as offering mobility to the First Nations along the route.
But during the COVID-19 pandemic, passenger numbers plummeted from up to 10,000 a year to just 154 in 2020. Couple that with a decline in freight and supply runs, and the future of the Lady Rose Marine Services was in question. Until Greg Willmon and Barrie Rogers, business owners and locals, realized the importance of this 75-year-old local service and community connection, and stepped in to purchase the company.
Employing a dozen people, and visiting some of the more remote regions of the island, it comes down to community and geography says Darren Cutforth, the ship’s engineer with 19 years of experience on the MV Frances Barkly. “It’s an out-of-the-way community, but they rely so heavily on us.”
Even as road improvements are under consideration, the future of these connections will remain, says Mr. Surrell, “there will always be communities that are dependent on services like ours. Without service there would be communities as well as Bamfield that would simply cease to exist.”
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