Visitors seeking First Nations culture plus a dollop of English empire head to Canada's Northwest coast.

By Steven R. Lorton
January 30, 2007
Matt Brown 

Springtime days are long and rich with discovery in PrinceRupert, British Columbia. The cool, silvery mornings are well underway by 5 a.m. The sun glows through a light fog. Mist hangs in thedark-green conifers that cloak the mountains, and basalt peaks jabthe sky. Walk out on your hotel balcony and you know you'reexperiencing the Inside Passage at its primeval best.

Until three years ago, this little gem of a city―infusedwith First Nation and British Imperial legacy―went largelyunnoticed. Now there is a cruise-ship dock, flights and trainservice are more frequent, and there's still time to see PrinceRupert before everyone else does.

By 8 a.m. down at the main dock, Mike Taylor, like many otheradventure tour guides in town, readies his boat for whale-watchingor a sail to Khutzeymateen Grizzly Bear Sanctuary. "Take binocularsand a telephoto," he says. "We don't get too close. It's all aboutrespect." Later that day he'll lead travelers out to Pike Island tosee an ancient Tsimshian village site, then take them on a hike tonearby petroglyphs.

Midmorning, Ian Morven is headed to the Carving Shed, which ispart of the Museum of Northern British Columbia. Ian credits hishandsome silver work and cedar carving to his Nisga'a roots,stretching back more than 10,000 years. "I pretty much live theculture," he says. "We pick berries in summer, fish, and hunt. Werespect the land, our culture, and our elders."

There's that word "respect" again. You hear it often inconversations around Prince Rupert. Cities, like people, havecharacters, and the psychological bedrock of this community is ahealthy, albeit quiet, self-respect. You sense it best at Moose TotPark, a humble city playground where, in the shadow of toweringtotems, children, the descendants of this melting pot, play withrambunctious glee. Mops of hair―black, blonde, brown, andred―flop in every direction.

Over in Cow Bay, it's buzzing well before noon. This docksidestreet of impeccably restored buildings dates back to 1918, when aherd of dairy cattle was shipped up to produce a local milk supply.With no dock for unloading, the cows were pushed off the boat toswim ashore. They landed on what is today Cow Bay.

Charming history aside, Prince Rupert is a sophisticated town.Gathered around the tables at Cowpuccino's, locals hash over globalwarming, Canada Prime Minister Stephen Harper, and the latestfurniture by designer Paul Cope. His pieces are carried locally ina shop called Homework, where owners David Smook and Lucy Pribasoffer a cutting-edge assortment of high-quality goods. PrinceRupert has taste.

And with good taste comes good food. Seafood is abundant andocean-fresh. Cow Bay Café, Rain Dining Lounge, and theWaterfront Restaurant at the Crest Hotel all top the list for finedining.

Speaking of dinner, by 4 p.m. as many as 50 hungry bald eaglesperch on the dock waiting for a fish or crab to drop as PorcherSeafoods unloads its catch. When a behemoth cruise ship makes itsway slowly up the harbor, eagles fly into the air, and passengersrush to the starboard bow in a stampede so great the ship seems tolist.

Down at the dock it looks as though everyone in town is wearinga costume, ready to give visitors the Royal Prince Ruperttreatment. Commercial? Of course. But it feels more like a townpicnic.

The excitement winds down at about 8 in the evening, whenresidents gather at the Crest Hotel. While they're drinking goodCanadian beer and swapping stories about their day, the mayor showsup. Herb Pond is articulate, movie-star handsome, gung-ho forPrince Rupert, and approachable. Someone asks him about the newcontainer-terminal going in, and about timber due to be logged offthe surrounding hills. Is this a problem? "We've looked at it allvery carefully and we've made good choices," he says. "No one wantsPrince Rupert to change. It will all be done with respect. Respectfor the land and the people."

Done with respect. There's that word again.