October 5, 2018

Places to Fly-West: Alert Bay, B.C.


By Janine Cross

A quintessential Pacific Northwest Coast flying experience, the route to Cormorant Island in British Columbia often involves dodging heavy rain showers in a mix of marginal VFR and IFR conditions. In all but the driest summer months, threading up the narrow Johnstone Strait means weaving around shoals of clouds that are as grey and ponderous as humpback whales while, not far below, heavy spectral mists lift from the cedars and hemlocks of the channel’s dozens of sparsely inhabited islands.

Situated between Broughton Strait and Pearse Passage off the northeastern coast of Vancouver Island, Cormorant Island boasts a 2900-foot airstrip (YAL), as well as a water aerodrome in the village of Alert Bay. When on approach for runway 09, the skeletal trees of the island’s eerie marshland ecological park are clearly visible to the left.

At the threshold of runway 27, on the north side, the Alert Bay Cabins are literally a stone’s throw from where you can park your plane on a wide grass verge. If you’ve rented a cabin here, the only thing preventing you from taxiing right to your door is a short but steep slope.

Alert Bay is a haven for kayaking, fishing, whale watching and hiking. A 16-km network of trails covers the island. From the airport cabins, the East Trail wends through the forest, right to the ecological park.

Being traditional Kwakwaka’wakw territory, Alert Bay possesses over 23 totems, one of which is the tallest in the world, towering 173 feet into the sky. Close by, the U’mista Cultural Centre houses a collection of elaborately carved masks and historical artefacts that have been repatriated after years of residing in far-flung museums.

There are a number of cafes in town, easily reached on foot from the airport; they serve everything from pizza to fresh-caught salmon. Before visiting outside of tourist season, pilots might want to check what is open, as some businesses keep limited hours or shut down entirely during the off-season. The cabins at the airport each contain full kitchens, so self-catering is always an option.