Summary: In 1953, when I was five and my brother was three, my father proposed that our family move from Vancouver to a remote logging camp on Vancouver Island where he and my mother had been offered teaching positions. This admittedly out-of-order chapter marks the start of our 3-day journey there.
My brother and I quivered with excitement on the morning we left Vancouver. We had never sailed on a ship of any kind, and now here we were, standing at the foot of the gangplank in Canada’s largest port, ready to board the steamship SS Catala.
“Do we really get to sleep overnight on this boat?” I asked, looking up at my folks.
“We really do,” laughed my mother. “We’ll have our own private cabin. The ship doesn’t arrive at Englewood until noon tomorrow!”
This was a thrill beyond words for two small children who had never before travelled out of the city, let alone slept on a real ship. We could hardly contain ourselves.
The Catala looked huge from where we stood. It was a steel, twin-propeller passenger freighter with 20 cabin berths and a cargo capacity of three hundred tons. Called the SS Catala, it formed part of the Union Steamship Line, a cargo and passenger line which serviced remote communities along the northern BC coast.
“See how the bottom is painted red and the upper part is black?” said Dad. “All the Union Steamships are painted the same way. They were all built in Scotland and brought over here in 1925. That’s more than 25 years ago, kids!”
We clambered aboard. Soon our heads were full of wooden decks and chunky, white portholes. After standing at the rail for some time and watching huge crates being loaded by crane into the hold of the ship, we climbed to the upper deck.
Everything was new to us. We discovered a covered deck halfway down the ship with shuffleboard pitch painted onto its wooden planking. We found discarded chairs, stacked in a corner and covered by heavy tarpaulins. We craned our necks at the huge, black-and-red funnels towering above the steep, “crew only” staircase. We peered excitedly at the lifeboats and ran our hands along thick ropes and polished, wooden railings.
An hour after we’d boarded her, the steamer pulled out of Vancouver harbour and headed west into Burrard Inlet, past the docks of the North Shore, where loose piles of bright yellow sulphur towered skyward like inverted traffic cones. The morning sky was cloudy, with the kind of misty overhang unique to the west coast. There was a chill in the air that made our noses run and defied any sweater or coat, but we were used to this and didn’t give it much thought. We hugged close the notion of sleeping overnight on this great monster, and this was enough to keep us warm. Having toured the ship, we kids were as ready as the other passengers to watch the Catala negotiate the narrow passage under the Lions Gate Bridge, a suspension bridge similar in appearance to the Golden Gate Bridge in San Fransisco, only much shorter.
As we approached the bridge, everyone clambered onto the upper decks. We had travelled across the bridge many times in the family Ford, but to see it from below was a rare treat and not one to be missed. In our collective minds, there was always the danger that the ship wouldn’t clear the bridge.
“What if those tall chimneys scrape the bridge and come off?” I asked, meaning the tall, red-and-black smokestacks. “What if we tip over?”
Dad laughed. “Lots of room!” he said. “It just looks narrow from here. Not to worry.”
I wasn’t convinced, still believing the funnels might scrape along the bottom surface of the span and scuttle the ship. Pleasantly horrified, I held my breath as the distance between the Catala and that great ribbon of concrete narrowed. Would we make it? To my untutored mind, it was a case of irresistible force meeting immovable object.
People got out their Kodak box cameras. Suddenly, the huge cables of the suspension bridge drooped and swooped above us like streamers at a birthday party, forcing heads back to watch the unfolding drama. At the very moment of potential contact, there was a tense silence on the decks. Then we were under with buckets of room to spare! It seemed incredible to us that such a large ship could pass through such a narrow space, but of course, ships even larger than the Catala sail under that bridge today. It was a fine lesson on the tricky optics of perspective.
I felt immense relief. Reassuring, too, was that immediately after the bridge, the channel widened out. We passed the endless beach of Spanish Banks on our port side and the Point Atkinson lighthouse on our starboard side. Calm returned to the passengers as we watched the pale, yellow lighthouse blinking in the distance.
“Wanna hear a good lighthouse story?” said an older man standing near the rail on our side. He wore a slicker and a canvass rain hat. “This here ship had quite an adventure fifteen years ago, up near Prince Rupert.”
“Tell us!” we cried.
“Well, farther north, the ship sailed past Egg Island, in Queen Charlotte Strait. Noticing that the lighthouse was strangely dark, the Captain tied a rope around his waist and swam to the Island.”
“He swam?” our eyes were agog.
“That’s what they say. Anyway, he found the lighthouse’s usual keepers missing and the remnants of their last meal on the table. After resurrecting the light, he came across two overturned fishing boats and suspected that the lighthouse keepers had been drowned. They were never heard from again.”
“My goodness,” said my father. “Is that a true story?”
“Yep,” said the stranger. “I should know because I was that captain!”
He sauntered off, smiling at our gaping mouths. It was difficult to believe that anyone would jump into these cold northern waters voluntarily. My mother was skeptical.
“I think he just made that story up,” she whispered.
Soon, however, we caught sight of the Point Atkinson lighthouse on the starboard side.We watched its light wink on and off, then we swivelled around to watch the headland of Point Grey pass by on the opposite side, where the university sat atop some sizable cliffs. On the beaches below, one or two crumbling gun emplacements and submarine watchtowers still sat, remnants of home defense efforts during WW II.
We had truly left Vancouver and soon floated in the vastness of the Georgia Strait, with low, brontosaurian humps of land visible in the distance on either side. The chill wind continued to cut through our clothing, so we decided to head inside to our cabin.