I was a bit hesitant in writing about Alert Bay because it is so well known and visited, and hardly fodder for a surprising story. But there is a reason it is visited. It is different and charming and quite magical. For those of you who haven’t spent at least a day there, you are missing out!
A short ferry ride from Port McNeill will take you into an adventure in history and culture that is unique. This community is the oldest on North Island by far. The ‘Namgis First Nations people were here for thousands of years before they were “discovered” by white explorers in 1792. In walking about “The Bay”, as locals call it, you simply cannot escape the historical significance of nearly everything you look at. There are “ghosts” of the past lingering in every nook and cranny. It’s all quite magical if you just go with the flow and quit looking at your watch; this small island of 1.78 square kilometres can keep you going for days.
The 2006 census has the population as being about 600 but today’s evaluation has it over 1,200, with a First Nations population of more than half that number. The U’Mista Cultural Centre draws people from all over the world to marvel at this ancient culture and admire their pride in their heritage. Of course, everyone has to see the tallest totem pole in the world standing next to the Big House where many of the cultural events take place.
Almost everyone that lives in Alert Bay has a great view since the island is really a big hill. In this painting from the graveyard in town (yes, I had permission) the view is across Broughton Strait with the Nimpkish River Valley in the distance. The mountains in the background are The Karmutzens, the ones you see as you drive along Nimpkish Lake. The west side of the Nimpkish River mouth was the location of the original Namgis settlement for centuries before they relocated to the island.
If you live on the eastern side of the island there is a gorgeous view down Broughton Strait and on to Johnstone Strait; a huge television screen with constant traffic. During the past thirty years I have painted views and scenes of every side of this enchanting island but never quite as many as Chris Nancarrow, a delightful little English artist who lived and painted in The Bay for several years. Chris has long since passed away but the town had the foresight to buy and hang an impressive display in their Museum Information Centre. When you are there, be sure to see them. They are a visual delight! If you just have one day to see The Bay, make sure you save time for a long day. There is a lot to see!
Gordon Henschel owns an art gallery in Nimpkish Heights. www.henschel.ca