Along for the Ride - Aurora Explorer
By Chris McBeath

It was 4:08 in the morning and my nose was pressed hard against the window, not wanting to miss a minute of the action on the deck below. It was a fascinating scene; curiously intimate and to our small band of spectators, a mixture of well rehearsed theater and impromptu activity.

The Aurora Explorer is a ninety foot steel landing craft that navigates the wilderness of British Columbia's coastal waterways. It is the only working vessel of its kind and while primarily a freight boat, its functional square tower has been retrofitted into a hospitable area for up to nine paying passengers.

Owned and operated by Marine Link, the Explorer has found her niche and is one of three vessels the company owns (the other two are strictly freight bound) that take supplies to and from isolated logging camps, fish farms, resorts and small communities along the coast between Vancouver Island and the mainland. On this trip, her cargo deck was laden with an excavator and bucket, 18 drums of aviation fuel, 24 coils of boom wire in a seemingly tangled mess, boom chains, several flats of lumber and other assorted cargo.

Passenger quarters are small and comfortable. Four modest cabins, each with double bunk berths and a small chest of drawers, open onto a cozy dining/lounge area with showcase windows facing forward, and the working deck below. From this vantage point, passengers can't help but become involved in the day to day operation of this coastal vessel. Although never asked to physically tote that barrel or heave that lumber, you bear witness to a crew of five who do just that. You talk with them, eat with them, share the bridge with them and even learn how to navigate your journey by radar, by chart or by the starry night - if that's your preference. For anyone with salt in their veins, the Aurora Explorer is a soul reunion, while for others it simply unfolds the wonders of a barely explored, pristine coastal wilderness, complete with whales and sea lions, otters, bald-headed eagles and bear.

The ship may be modest compared to its pompous cousins which ply the Inside Passage between Seattle and Skagway, but the same cannot be said for the food. How any cook can conjure up such extravagant meals from such a small, forever spotlessly tidy galley, defies the laws of chefdom. Move over Martha Stewart, these people have you beat. Breakfast snacks are available from 6 am with a cooked meal following at 8 am (Eggs Benny, Waffles with whipped cream and fresh strawberries are just samplers). At noon, expect home-made soup, freshly baked bread and a variety of salads. (Breads, muffins, cookies and croissants are baked daily). Dinner at 6 is hearty and flavorful, its various aromas wafting through the ventilation system to tease the appetite. Second helpings are plentiful and the home-made pecan pie is to die for. If tides and time permit, you may even hosted to an impromptu barbecue on the beach, serving up that afternoon's catch. And since fishing around these waters is touted to be among of the world's best, you can expect a feast. Still feel like snacking? Coffee, popcorn, soft drinks and cookies are available 24 hours a day alongside huge bowls of polished fruit and a candy dish that is forever full.

From your departure from Campbell River on Vancouver Island, you're immediately surrounded by breath-taking, rugged scenery that leads you deep into the wilderness. Small as she is, the Aurora Explorer is able to come within inches of rocky promontories where arbutus and cedar cling tenuously to the cliff-face. She crawls up onto deserted beach heads, nudges her nose within a hair's width of glacial waterfalls and chugs into tiny inlets; places such as Hernando Island, Hole In The Wall, Yucalta Rapids, Echo Bay, the Homathko Icefield, to name only a few.

Itineraries range from two to five night trips to various coastal inlets such as historical Kingcome Inlet where you'll see ancient pictographs, petroglyphs and turn of the century homesteads. Then there are the fish farms around Cortes Island, far flung logging camps along Bute Inlet, and private island retreats of the rich and famous. For many, the Aurora Explorer is their lifeline. After all, when a trailer beside a log boom in the wilderness is home, or your 18-hole golf course (on an island owned by Denzel Washington) needs fertilizing, the 'corner store' has to come to you!

Because the Aurora Explorer is primarily a working vessel, be prepared for a degree of latitude within your appointed time frame. Freight and tide dictate exact routes and stop-overs. That's why you might find yourself up at 4 am, nose pressed against the window, watching lumber flying to shore at the end of a crane in a twilight dance that's strangely mesmerizing.

At this time of the morning, sleep is certainly the other option and once you get used to having what seems to be an alive lawnmower under your bunk, the vibration of the ship's engine is quite comforting. And when they ease their rumble, it generally means that another delivery's in store and you find you can't help yourself. It's all hands on deck.

Since passengers have the run of the ship, you quickly adapt to the rhythm of this busy craft - up at dawn to watch the sunrise over glacial mountains; a cat-nap in the afternoon before going ashore to explore an abandoned native village or a quiet cocktail on the aft deck as The Aurora Explorer, quite literally, sails into the sunset. It's no-fuss cruising - eco-tourism of sorts to areas of British Columbia few have experienced, with people who become more than passing ships in the night. Often, they become friends long after the ship has sailed again.

As a slower paced, less formal way of traveling. the Aurora Explorer is the ultimate getaway. And because every trip offers something different, many passengers come back time and time again. They know that a date at 4 o'clock in the morning is an adventure not to be missed.

If You Go:

Marine Link Tours
Box 451, Campbell River, BC
V9W 5C1
Tel: 250-286-3347;
fax: 250-286-1149;

Choose from six different routes, 2 days/2nights to 5 days/5nights, running mid March to mid October. Costs vary between CDN $500 - $2000 per person depending on cruise selected and time of year.

What to Wear:
As a working freight vessel, the atmosphere is very casual - jeans, sweaters, shorts and t-shirts are entirely appropriate. Soft soled shoes and a warm jacket, even in summer months. Boots for shore excursions, particularly in Spring and Fall.

What to Bring:
Cameras, plenty of film and binoculars. Wine, served with the evening meal, is the only liquor provided and you're welcome to bring your own additional alcoholic beverages. A full range of 'mix' drinks are available. Use soft luggage, "duffel bag" style, as it will fit most easily beneath your bunk.

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