September 2012. A journey through the Western part of North America, where Canada borders on to the United States. A road trip through Washington State and the Canadian Province of British Columbia.
Washington is dominated by snow-capped mountains, emerald-blue waters around Seattle and the Puget Sound, a widespread, island-studded bay that extends deep into the interior. Many towns and cities are located at the Sound, including Seattle and Tacoma.
Throughout Puget Sound several offshore islands like Bainbridge Island, San Juan Islands and Vashon – to name just a few – are located. 22 ferries and 10 services of the Washington State Ferries provide daily connections to this fascinating island world.
Washington has a lot to offer. It is not for nothing that the state is called the „Evergreen State“ – always green. Here everyone gets their money’s worth, whether nature lovers or city tourists. Three national parks, more than 8,000 lakes, an active volcano, fishing villages, artists‘ colonies, and a lot of culture – it is even difficult for locals to have seen it all. And that combined with a very relaxed, liberal lifestyle.
Washington’s northern part borders with the Canadian province of British Columbia, also called BC. It is the third largest of Canada’s provinces. Incidentally, more than twice the size of Germany! BC is pure nature – a vast province forming a contrast of water, mountains and forests. Countless islands dot the rugged shore. From Vancouver, the largest city in BC, the spectacular North, bordering on Alaska, can be reached via good roads and transport systems. As in Washington ferries offer a comfortable way to get around wherever roadways are separated by water. BC Ferries, the main operator of the ferry services, has 36 ships and is the largest ferry company in North America.
Our journey begins in Frankfurt and will lead us South on the BC Ferries Tsawwassen – Swartz Bay route after a nearly eleven-hour flight to Vancouver. At Vancouver Island we will take the ferry to the United States to explore the area around Seattle.
The Tsawwassen ferry terminal, is only 500 meters from the border to the United States. BC Ferries offers various ferry connections to Vancouver Island and the Southern Gulf Islands, which are located offshore.
The name Tsawwassen is derived from one of the many so-called First Nations, Native Indian tribes who lived here long before the white settlers.
The construction for this ferry port, which has 5 ferry berths, began in 1959.
It is a beautiful September day, as the COASTAL CELEBRATION docks in Tsawwassen. The ferry was built in 2007 at the shipyard in Flensburg / Germany and is the latest in a series of three identical sister vessels which BC Ferries ordered in Germany.
The COASTAL CELEBRATION connects Tsawwassen to Swartz Bay on Vancouver Island. The crossing takes about 90 minutes and offers extensive opportunities to use the culinary offers, to shop or simply to discover the island landscape, which appears soon after crossing the Strait of Georgia, from the spacious outdoor deck.
The Tsawwassen – Swartz Bay route was opened in June 1960. Since then much has changed. The port has grown and has seen several generations of ferries. Currently up to four ferries operate on the route, whereas the number of crossings per day is determined by the volume of traffic for the time of the year.
About halfway a special highlight is waiting for the passengers. The very narrow Active Pass, a strait between the Southern Gulf Islands, has to be crossed.
The Active Pass is only 500 meters wide at the narrowest point. Every ferry has to pass through here. The passage is nautically challenging, since the course changes twice very abruptly and strong currents are present caused by the prevailing tide – sometimes in a northerly direction, at other times towards the South. This can be seen quite well on choppy sea just before the entrance to the sound.
Here at Active Pass the shore comes almost close enough to be touched and you have a beautiful view of the islands. With a little luck you can observe seals, eagles and other wildlife. No wonder that the cameras and video cameras are in constant use. New motifs appear constantly on the left and right, while the COASTAL CELEBRATION makes its way to Swartz Bay.
In this world consisting of water, islands and forests, we encounter many other vessels of BC Ferries, which are en route to the Southern Gulf Islands. They all have Swartz Bay as a starting point of their journey.
Pretty soon Swartz Bay is coming into sight. The ferry terminal has 5 BC Ferries‘ berths and is additionally used by the shipping company Seaspan, which offers freight services from here to Tilbury in Vancouver.
It is not far from Swartz Bay to the town of Sidney, from where we will take the ferry to the United States. Twice a day Washington State Ferries offer a connection to Anacortes and we want to use the first run of the day to go to the States.
The ferry terminal in Sidney is tranquil compared to Tsawwassen and Swartz Bay. Twice a day here the otherwise rather sleepy village springs into action. The waiting time for the ferry can be shortened with reading, a snack or a visit to the terminal kiosks.
Highlights of the day are the ferry arrivals from the United States. Then suddenly the ferry terminal comes alive, however without being hectic. Everything will take its orderly course, unless the U.S. Border Control or Customs have something else in mind, and no one really needs to be afraid to be left behind. The CHELAN, part of the Washington State Ferries‘ fleet and built in 1981 provides sufficient capacity on its two cargo decks.
It’s finally here. We are in line. The loading begins. We get aboard the ship over a bridge built in the water, and the vehicles are carefully stowed.
Soon it will call for a cast off towards the USA. We have about a two hour journey ahead of us.
This route already exists since 1922. The CHELAN serves this route as the only ship and received a SOLAS upgrade specifically for this voyage. Originally the CHELAN was used between Edmonds and Kingston, but there larger capacities were required. In exchange with the ELWHA, the CHELAN was moved to the only international connection of Washington State Ferries, the route between Canada and the USA.
The voyage leads through the archipelago of San Juan Islands. These 172 islands are nestled in a landscape of water and mountains. This route is especially popular with nature lovers, as with a little luck you can watch the whales. We have no such luck today, however many other motives for photographing or filming are coming up.
In the distance you can see Mount Baker, an over 3,200 meter high volcano. Although close enough to touch, it is still about 90 kilometers away.
Soon Anacortes is in sight. Founded in 1877 by opening of a post office this location is often used as a starting point for a trip to San Juan Islands. It is the largest town on the island called Fidalgo and is the maritime center on the West Coast, with shipyards, whale watching tours and a marina. Washington State Ferries offer different connections from here to the islands.
The two berths at the Anacortes ferry terminal are busy around the clock with the clearance of ships. Only at night it is quiet for a couple hours. It is a coming and going, apart from the route to Canada the ferry services to the islands of Orcas, Shaw, Lopez and San Juan Island are departing from here.
In addition to the CHELAN the ferries HYAK, YAKIMA, ELWHA are being used and the EVERGREEN STATE serves as replacement when needed.
After we left Anacortes behind us, we continue in the direction of Clinton, where the ferry to Mukilteo’s leaves. We will spend the night there. Our journey takes us to Fidalgo Island and then across the picturesque Whidbey Island, where the small town of Clinton is located at the southeastern end.
The route between Clinton and Mukilteo is one of the busiest lines of Washington State Ferries. Every year more than 4 million passengers take this route, whose crossing time is just 20 minutes. Besides the KITTITAS the CATHLAMET is used for the route as well.
We will take the 6 p.m. departure of the CATHLAMET to get to Mukilteo. Although the traffic that night remains limited, the steady flow of vehicles into the ferry terminals of Washington State Ferries does never stop entirely.
With some delay, which has built up due to back up during the course of the long day, the CATHLAMET casts off. In the beginning years the ferry had a lot of technical problems and caused damages in the millions of dollars. After many trials and tests those issues are a part of the past now.
In Mukilteo, known for the still active lighthouse built in 1906, the day says good bye with some last rays of sunshine. It will be a short night, because we will head towards Tacoma, south of Seattle, quite early.
It is early in the morning, as our trip begins from Mukilteo heading towards Tacoma. Our intermediate destination is the city of Edmonds, which seamlessly merges with Seattle. Another service of Washington State Ferries operates across the Puget Sound between Edmonds and Kingston. We want to use this one to continue south to Vashon Island.
The voyage from Mukilteo to Edmonds takes about half an hour.
Two ferries operate between Edmonds and Kingston. The PUYALLUP belongs to the Jumbo Mark II class of altogether 3 ships. Together with her two sister ships she is the largest double-ended vessel in the United States. She was put into service in 1999 and can carry up to 2,500 passengers and 200 cars.
The SPOKANE has a long ship’s life. She was built in 1972, and commuted between Seattle and Bainbridge Island. As of 1997 new ferries came and she was moved to the Edmonds – Kingston route, where she still takes the 30 minute crossing several times a day.
We take the SPOKANE to cross over to Kingston.
Next stop is Southworth further to the South. The Washington State Ferries offer two services from there. We take the route via Vashon Island to Tacoma. It is the slower route, because you can take the surface streets to Tacoma. But it is worthwhile to visit the islands around Seattle.
Three ships operate on the triangle service Southworth – Fauntleroy – Vashon. Vashon does not have a regular stop on every trip. The SEALTH was built in 1982 and is named after the chief of a Native Indian tribe, which incidentally, is also the namesake of Seattle.
The TILIKUM is the much older, dating from as early as 1959 and was refurbished in 1994. The TILIKUM is a part of the Evergreen State class, which is made up of a series of 3 ships built in Seattle and still active to date. Besides TILIKUM and the SEALTH the ISSAQUAH is also operating on this route.
We want to take the TILIKUM to Vashon. This is however not possible directly. All vehicles which want to go to the island are stowed separately on the deck in order not to be mix up with the vehicles which want to go to Fauntleroy. Only after the vehicles for Vashon are on board, the rest of the cars are loaded up.
The over 50 year old TILIKUM is part of the maritime transport history of Puget Sounds. It all started in 1951, after the State of Washington had taken over almost all of the shares of the Black Ball Line. The Washington State Department of Transportation, which is now responsible for the ferry service, could, however, not take too much of a modern fleet. Most vessels were 20 to 30 years old and designed for the needs of car transport in the 1920s and 1930s. Washington State Ferries had to consider building new ferries. In 1954 the EVERGREEN STATE was the lead ship of a new generation of ferries in service which was later completed by the KLAHOWYA and the TILIKUM.
First we reach Fauntleroy in the Southwest of Seattle. Especially those, who live in the southern districts of the city and want to cross the waters of Puget Sound, use the southern ferry route to Southworth. It will save the way of going into Downtown Seattle from where Washington State Ferries operate as well.
The area of the terminal where everyone is waiting is already pretty populated. Some of the vehicles want to go to Southworth, others to Vashon. A special stowing logistic is required so that they all will reach their intended destination.
After driving across the Vashon Island, from North to South, you will get to another Washington State Ferry terminal at the South coast of the island. From Tahlequa it takes a 15 minute journey to Point Defiance in Tacoma. The ferry is almost new and was put into service in 2010.
CHETZEMOKA is named after a Native Indian chief from the area around Port Townsend. The ship is one of the smaller ferries of Washington State Ferries and initially had considerable problems with vibrations. In addition to this, the ship had a permanent list, which was not really visible during the normal loading process
Tacoma and hence our destination for today is reached quickly. The night is short, since Seattle the largest city in the Northwestern United States is on the agenda for the next day.
Seattle in the Pacific Northwest. Downtown, the center of the city. Washington State Ferries operate to Bainbridge and Bremerton Island from here.
We are onboard the KALEETAN to go to Bremerton. The ride takes 60 minutes and is certainly one of the most spectacular routes of Washington State Ferries based on the view of the Seattle skyline.
The trip to Bremerton is the nicer of the two routes from Seattle. It will take you across the Puget Sound, and then passing through the narrow waters between Bainbridge Island and the Olympic Peninsula. This is absolutely worth seeing on a sunny day like today. Sometimes you can also observe very large ships in this area, since there is Bremerton Naval Shipyard and a base for the U.S. Navy. Even aircraft carriers of the armed forces are going to the naval base through the narrow strait where the ferries run.
A little later on Bainbridge Island, opposite Seattle. It’s already pretty busy. Although in all the terminals of Washington State Ferries a regular flow of vehicles takes place, everything here is somewhat larger. The route Bainbridge Island – Seattle is the busiest route of Washington State Ferries. Over 6 million passengers per year use the two ferries, WENATCHEE and TACOMA.
The TACOMA belongs to the Jumbo Mark II class. She was put into service in 1997. Its large capacity of 2,500 passengers and over 200 cars on the busy route was once very welcome to respond to the major traffic flows. The highest passenger capacity occurs usually between 6 a.m. and 9 a.m., from West to East, i.e. to Seattle. Then, thousands flock to the city and take the ferry as a daily means of transportation. Conversely, i.e. from East to West, there is the afternoon rush hour, which starts around 3:30 p.m. and ends at 6:20 p.m.
While the TACOMA makes her way to Seattle, the WENATCHEE is leaving simultaneously on the other side. This is the same, day in and day out while they meet in the middle of Puget Sound.
Each year Washington State Ferries carry 24 million passengers. On 10 routes more than 450 crossings are offered daily. The whole thing is called the „ferry system“. Basically, none of the ferries is bound to a specific route and – depending on vessel size – there is a high degree of flexibility, in case a ship has to go to the shipyard for overhaul or is out of commission.
Seattle, with its landmark, the Space Needle, is almost reached. The TACOMA, which reaches up to 18 knots, is rapidly approaching the Colman Dock, as the ferry terminal of Washington State Ferries is also referred to.
Now it is time to say „Goodbye“ to Seattle. For us the journey continues towards Port Townsend on the Olympic Peninsula. The KENNEWICK ferry to Coupeville and the Keystone ferry terminal on Whidbey Island is waiting.
The Keystone ferry terminal on Whidbey Island is a few miles outside of the town of Coupeville. There is not much going on out here. One of Washington State Ferries‘ SALISH respectively KENNEWICK from Port Townsend is coming in every 45 minutes throughout the day.
The SALISH was built 2011. It is quite a large ship for the small artificial harbor in Keystone. Especially the very shallow waters prohibit the use of other, larger ferries from the Washington State Ferries‘ fleet.
The entire system of Washington State Ferries is usually designed so that two ships operate a route. The operation runs the entire day, except for a few hours at night. In the evening and morning hours the schedule is often cut and one of the two ferries is taking a break.
There are usually several sister ships for all the ferries. These identical ferries belonging to whichever class it represents. At this time only double-ended ferries are in operation. Since many ferries are already older, a program is under way to build new ones. A new class, named after the Olympic Peninsula, is currently under construction. The first ship is supposed to be commissioned in 2014.
Besides the route Sidney – Anacortes there is another route with which you can get across the US – Canadian boarder away from the surface streets. The U.S. Port in Port Angeles offers two daily crossings with the Black Ball Ferry Line to the Canadian town of Victoria.
The only vessel on the route is called COHO. She is the only ship of the ferry line and it is getting old as well; being built in 1959 it is now over 60 years old.
We embark on the first voyage of the day.
The COHO is booked pretty solid. The lines to drive on the ship are filling one by one. It does not hurt to have a reservation as there are only two crossings per day.
Just in time the loading procedure is starting. The ferry has one car deck. Two large doors serve as loading ramps. The ones with a reservation come on board first. Later the other ones will follow. The ship is getting pretty full but no one is left behind.
8:15 a.m. and off we go. The COHO sets sail. The trip takes 90 minutes and has less scenic sights to offer in contrary to the route to Anacortes. However, the crossing is taken with a ship which has a very special character due to its age.
The passenger encounters a very clean ship. Despite the age, it is up to date and well maintained according to SOLAS standard. The ferry is well maintained and you can see that the shipping company is proud of their COHO.
The history of the COHO is long. She made her first trip to Victoria in December of 1959 and was later on used on various routes between Seattle, Port Angeles, Port Townsend and Victoria.
The ferry is from a different time, which you can see on every corner. Large windows and plenty of seating invite you to relax and enjoy the 20 nautical miles. On board there is even free internet service. Something taken for granted which you will look for in vain on many European ferries.
The Black Ball Ferry Line has a long tradition and is an inseparable part of the west coast of Canada and the United States. In 1816 it was already opened as a transatlantic passenger and cargo service. Ferries had not been thought of for the years to come and yet the roots are in those years when sailing ships still maintained the link between Europe and America.
Black Ball Line was once America’s largest ferry company before its shares were sold to the state of Washington in 1951 and Washington State Ferries was formed therefrom. A small part of the Black Ball Line, however, remained preserved and it turned into Blackball Ferries. This in turn sold most of their shares to the Government of British Columbia in 1961. This was the birth of BC Ferries.
Travelling with the COHO is a pleasant experience. Just as the ship comes from a different time, sailing with it feels just the same way. A quiet emergence from the restless life, which does not seem quite as restless in the U.S. as it does in Europe – definitely relaxation for all passengers.
The last part of the day is a trip to Horseshoe. We take the QUEEN OF OAK from Departure Bay on Vancouver Island to the mainland. BC Ferries take 1 hour and 40 minutes for this route which leads almost directly to West Vancouver.
The QUEEN OF OAK BAY was built in 1981. The 140 meter long double-ended ferry operates on the route along with the COASTAL RENAISSANCE. BC Ferries usually offers up to 8 departures a day in each direction. A notable information system displays the utilization of the route already to the traveler on the Trans-Canada Highway in the utilization rate of the next departure.
We reach Horseshoe Bay Terminal. From here, two more routes of BC Ferries go to the islands, also known as the Sunshine Coast North of Vancouver. Horseshoe Bay belongs to West Vancouver. However, it preserved a rather independent character because of its special geographical location.
Horseshoe Bay is primarily known as a ferry port which has been in existence for a rather long time. The Black Ball Line has already operated ferries from here a long time ago. But only BC Ferries built the ferry docks we know today and which had to be set up on a rather compact space.
The port has three ferry berths. They all can be reached by foot passengers through glass-enclosed walkways from ashore. Anyone arriving by car does not even have to leave the Trans Canada Highway No. 1 as the road goes straight into the terminal.
Horseshoe Bay has a population of about 1,000 people. The town seems to have been formed around a low mountain range. The adjacent steep slopes, covered with coniferous trees create this impression.
For us, Horseshoe Bay is the gateway to Vancouver.
We are on our way to Heriot Bay, the northernmost point of the trip. The QUEEN OF SURREY takes us initially from Horseshoe Bay to Langdale. The ferry is a sister ship of the QUEEN OF OAK BAY and is part of the so-called C-Class. This class includes a total of 5 ships, which are not all identical and differ in the superstructure area.
The scenic crossing to Langdale on the Sunshine Coast takes 40 minutes.
The next stop is Earls Cove, where the ferry to Saltery Bay leaves from. We are traveling 80 km to the North on the Sunshine Coast Highway, passing by the typical Canadian landscape. It is easy and comfortable to move quickly on the well-built road, which even has a second lane to pass slower vehicles.
By the way: the Sunshine Coast is only accessible by ferry. Due to the steep topography no access roads were built from the surrounding areas.
There is a lot of nature to discover off the beaten path. The Sunshine Coast stretches 180 kilometers along the coast and around every corner there is something to discover. Many smaller and larger lakes appear again and again on the roadside and invite you to stay.
The sea surface fog indicates still quite warm water. The temperatures are falling steadily since Tacoma, starting 26C degrees down to only 10C degrees now.
Highway 101 further north is accompanied by another ferry. Without a ship you can’t get any further. The small settlement is called Earls Cove. BC Ferries also offer a way to get further along here. A ferry shuttles 8 times a day to Saltery Bay.
The ISLAND SKY is approaching the dock. She is one of the newest ferries in the BC Ferries‘ fleet. She was built at the Vancouver shipyard and commissioned in December 2008.
There is not so much going on today. You can already tell that the season is over. The ISLAND SKY has quite a large capacity to clear out the place entirely. A maximum of 125 cars and 400 passengers can get on board.
Although the journey takes only 50 minutes, it’s certainly one of the most beautiful BC Ferries routes. The ship sails through the Jervis Inlet . This water has access to the Pacific, and runs like a fjord far into the interior.
On the port side Nelson Island is passing by. This island, with its high forest coverage and many smaller and larger lakes is sparsely populated. No car ferry goes there at all.
Straight ahead is Captains Island, a small, uninhabited island. The ISLAND SKY is making a 90-degree change of course to the West here, to counteract on the North Coast of Nelson Island with its destination.
There is a lot to see in this wilderness, but you also need to take the time to explore it. The bustle of the city Vancouver is just about 100 kilometers to the Southeast, and a totally different world opens upright here. Mankind has indeed arrived here as well, but the state of the nature was preserved. Pure Canada – for many hundreds of kilometers more.
After nearly a 10 mile ride Saltery Bay lays ahead of us. This is really just a dock. There are no larger settlements around here. The area is surrounded by rain forest, covered with lichen and moss. It is considered the area with the most rainfall along the entire Sunshine Coast.
From here we continue to the territory of the Sliammon, one of the First Nations, those indigenous people of Canada who lived here long before the white settlers. The small fishing village of Lund is our first stop, before we continue to Powell River.
The city of Powell River with about 13,000 inhabitants is considered remote. This is not necessarily surprising, because the road ends into nowhere to the North. The place was known primarily for its paper industry established in 1912. BC Ferries operate two routes even from here. With one going to Texada Island, the largest island between the mainland and Vancouver Island.
The small ferry NORTH ISLAND PRINCESS provides 10 daily crossings to the settlement Blubber Bay on Texada. The ship was built in 1958 and is the oldest in the fleet. It is a catamaran which was also the first of its kind along the local coast.
Also, another classic old-timer departs from here: Built in 1965, the QUEEN OF BURNABY will bring us to Comox on Vancouver Island.
Every day, including at 5:15 p.m., the ferry departs on its 80 minute voyage.
The ferry has a colorful past behind her and is an integral part of the history of shipping on the West Coast of Canada. The design of the ship comes from Phillip F. Spaulding, a naval architect from Seattle, who had already designed the COHO. Spaulding was recruited at the time, together with his partner Arthur McLaren, to develop the „V Class“. This included the QUEEN OF BURNABY and another ship for the BC Ferries.
For many years, the QUEEN sailed on the route Departure Bay – Horseshoe Bay.
In 1972, the ferry has been lengthened by 25 meters to provide greater capacity.
Ultimately something significant took place in 1994 when the ship was transferred to the Victoria line and received the new name ROYAL VICTORIAN. With this the ferry service between Victoria and Seattle, which had been suspended in 1990 was reinstated, which proved to be a miserable failure.
In 1997, the ferry was transferred to Clipper Navigation, which used her on the same line as the PRINCESS MARGUERITE III, before it finally was halted in 1999. In 2000 the sale to BC Ferries followed. Henceforth, the ship sailed again under its old name QUEEN OF BURNABY. Since then she operated between Powell River and Comox.
We reach Comox. From here we continue to the North. Campbell River is the intermediate stop for today.
We are on our way to Heriot Bay on Quadra Island, which belongs to the Discovery Islands.
The POWELL RIVER QUEEN dates back to1965. Since then she was rebuilt or modernised several times. She can carry 400 passengers. With about 70 cars the car deck is full.
The 1.8 mile long route only takes about 10 minutes, before reaching the little bay on the West Coast of the island, where the pier is located.
The northernmost end of our journey is reached. Quadra Island is located between Vancouver and the mainland coast. The island is populated by 2,700 people and three villages; all this in the wilderness of British Columbia.
Heriot Bay is the gateway to the Discoveries and the starting point of a ferry to the Cortes Island. A small ferry of the BC Ferries, the TACHEK, operates from here on the 45-minute long route.
For us, this means to say „Goodbye“ shortly to a country which can be rediscovered many times due to its size alone. The journey back takes us with the POWELL RIVER QUEEN towards the South to Nanaimo where at Duke Point the QUEEN OF ALBERNI departs to Tsawwassen on the outskirts of Vancouver.