Uchuck story stirs

Uchuck story stirs memory banks
Growing up in Port Alberni, it wasn’t until the age of 16 that I took my first trip down Alberni Inlet to the West Coast of Vancouver Island. Getting there meant taking a coastal freighter called the Uchuck II. There were no roads to the coast in those days and my first summer job was due to start on a Monday morning at the Sarita River logging camp, located near the fishing village of Bamfield. 

Sunday evening my parents drove me to the public pier at the foot of Argyle Street in Port Alberni. What my mother witnessed must have shaken her to the core as dozens of loggers literally crawled up the gangway to board the Uchuck after their wild weekend in the big city. Here was her innocent son (well relatively innocent) off to be exposed to the gambling and drinking habits of an unruly, albeit hard working bunch of individuals. 

The photo above snapped from the stern of the Uchuck II. This one taken leaving Sarita on a Friday evening run to Port Alberni. Loggers crammed every square foot of deck space, with some of the young single men likely looking forward to another wild weekend.

This photo was taken from the window of the bunkhouse room that I shared with two other summer jobbing teenagers, Don Best and Dave Nickel.  Looking out the window on my first morning a torrential rainstorm was lashing the camp. I thought “There’s no way we’ll be working today!” How wrong I was. Luckily, a surveyor in the engineering office took pity on me and loaned me his rain-gear until I could purchase my own from the camp commissary. My job that summer was that of an axe man on a road survey crew. We located the route that the logging road would follow to access timber slated for harvesting.  Later the same day I was walking on a windfall and got quite a surprise. On the opposite end of the dead tree was a bear. We both took off running in opposite directions. 

The above memories I exercise as a segue to tell you about a book I recently read. It was titled The Uchuck Years and was written by David Young, a neighborhood chum of mine who once lived in Port Alberni.  David’s father Esson Young and his friend George McCandless started the Barkley Sound Transportation Co. Ltd. in 1946 with a ship named Uchuck No. I. Two years later with business expanding, the founding partners purchased a redundant West Vancouver passenger ferry and converted it for West Coast use, naming the new addition Uchuck II.  

Since the company now had two ships in operation, the Uchuck I plied the Kildonan, Sarita River and Bamfield ports-of-call with the Uchuck II sailing most often to Ucluelet.  Another addition to the fleet came in the mid-50’s with the conversion of a WW II minesweeper. Christened the Uchuck III the ship was able to handle just about any form of freight, including cars and pickup trucks that were lifted aboard by a double derrick and winch system.   

Eventually road access came to the communities of Bamfield and Ucluelet by linking up the network of logging roads that radiated out from the Alberni Valley. With much of the freight business now transferred to trucks, the company decided to relocate north to Nootka Sound where road access was still limited. Operating a route between Gold River and Tahsis and innumerable points in between, 70 years later the ship still operates in the area.

Dave, even when we were youngsters, was working weekends on the Uchuck vessels and later grew up to become senior master, president and part-owner. I emailed Dave to congratulate him and he responded with “At the book launch in Courtenay there were many people from the past including an Airforce serviceman at Tofino who travelled around with us in 1949 and others I hadn't seen for many years. Usually at launches here, 20 to 30 show up. This time they lost count at 70 but there were many more until they just couldn't get in the door. Tens of thousands have travelled over the many years in the three vessels.”

For any blog readers who sailed on the Uchucks or just enjoy stories about Vancouver Island’s West Coast, David Young’s new book The Uchuck Years is a must read.

Swiss trip continued from last blog - From Lugano to St Moritz and Montreux via The Bernina Express.

To catch the Bernina Express my brother Terry and I took a highway bus from Lugano to Tirano, boarding the train in the early afternoon. This section of the Rhaetian Railway’s Bernina Express is promoted as one of the most spectacular ways to cross the Alps. After traveling through over 55 Tunnels, passing over 196 bridges and attacking slopes of up to 70 millimetres per metre of incline, I certainly support that declaration. 

The physical high-point of the RhB is Ospizio Pass (above) at 2,253 metres above sea level. Since summer 2008, the section between Thusis and Tirano has been classed as a UNESCO World Heritage site.

Arriving in St. Moritz we checked into the Hotel la Margna (above) overlooking the railway station and Lake St. Moritz. The village is one of the best-known and most prestigious ski resorts in the world, especially since hosting the Olympic Winter Games in 1928 and in 1948. The area was pretty well deserted during our visit being between the ski and summer tourist seasons. It was also Sunday which meant the branches of Gucci and Prada that line the main street were closed, not that I’d be shopping in any of these establishments that cater to the world’s “beautiful people.” 

The following morning we were back at the railway station ready to board the Glacier Express. After the spectacular train ride on the Bernina Express the day before I couldn’t believe there could be another railway to challenge that picturesque route. However, this is Switzerland where scenic railways are just another mountain range away.

The Glacier Express is billed as the "slowest express train in the world" and runs from St Moritz to Zermatt. Promptly at 09:15 hrs we were underway. Trains in Switzerland leave on time or there are questions raised in the Swiss parliament. 

Crossing the Landwasser Viaduct was one of the ultimate wow moments on the journey. The Glacier Express cars have huge wrap around windows, which make for stunning viewing. Unfortunately they don’t lend themselves to photography due to the reflection factor as you can detect in the photos above. The Landwasser Viaduct opened in 1904 and is particularly astonishing. Coming out of a tunnel on a huge rock face, the two photos above were attempted when the train curved into a quarter-circle on the viaduct. The photo of the viaduct at left I downloaded from the internet to give you a better perspective of the terrain. Wherever we travelled by rail in Switzerland I inevitably gasped in amazement at the achievements of the Victorian era engineers who built these railways. 

Photos above: Changing trains at Brig  we arrived in Montreux. The Hotel Eden Palace au Lac in Montreux was also right out of the Victorian era. Located on Lake Geneva the room had a dazzling view across the lake to the French Alps. 

The Montreux Jazz Festival (begun in 1967) is today one of the largest and most important jazz festivals in the world. In the garden outside the Miles Davis concert hall are statues of some of the world’s most famous jazz artists.

Unloading picnic tables from the weekend steam show. The museum train uses the three kilometre long narrow gauge line between Blonay and Chamby which was built in 1902.

The best-known structure on the line is the 78-metre-long and 45-metre-high viaduct over the ravine of "Baye de Clarens".

We rode on an open flatcar with the president of the museum cooperative Jean-Francois Andrust. The museum railway of Blonay-Chamby is owned by the cooperative and maintains the museum's own narrow gauge railway line. Exhibited are over 60 historic vehicles ranging from a steam tramway locomotive to electric streetcars in two halls in Chaulin (the location of the museum station). The museum is unique especially because the steam locomotives, electric locomotives, electric railcars, tram carriages, railway carriages, freight cars and company vehicles are maintained so that they are operational at any time.

Volunteers in the museum’s rail yard are putting the equipment away that was used on the weekend. Jean-Francois Andrust gave us his keys so we could visit all the buildings on site.

Returning to Montreux proved to be easy. By hiking a half-mile up-grade along the museum’s right-of-way we could reach the mainline station of Chamby on the Golden Pass Railway. Since we were traveling on a Swiss Rail Pass it enabled us to board any train we wanted.  Shortly a Panorama tourist train appeared and it was a short half hour ride down the steep grade through acres of vineyards to the Montreux Train Station, the only station in Switzerland served by three different track gauges.

During our stay in Montreux we made a day trip to Geneva.  

One of Geneva’s most famous landmarks. Named the Jet d’Eau it is one of the largest fountains in the world, pumping 132 gallons of water skyward for to 459 feet. 

We toured the United Nations Office at Geneva (UNOG). The buildings constitute the second largest United Nations centre after the United Nations Headquarters in New York. UNOG is housed in the Palais des Nations, an outstanding testimony to twentieth century architecture, situated in a beautiful park in Geneva overlooking Lake Geneva, with a splendid view of the Alps and, on a clear day, the Mont Blanc.

In this section of the massive building complex the forerunner of the United Nations, the League of Nations, held their meetings. The League of Nations came into being after the end of World War One.  Their task was simple - to ensure that war never broke out again. After the turmoil caused by the Versailles Treaty, many looked to the League to bring stability to the world.

The United States entered World War One in 1917. The country as a whole and the president - Woodrow Wilson in particular - were horrified by the slaughter that had taken place in what was meant to be a civilized part of the world. The only way to avoid a repetition of such a disaster was to create an international body whose sole purpose was to maintain world peace and which would sort out international disputes as and when they occurred. This would be the task of the League of Nations.

After the devastation of the war, support for such a good idea was great (except in the USA where isolationism was taking root). Then came Hitler and World War Two. When that ended the United Nations was formed and we continue to try and end war. The room pictured above is now used for meetings to try and resolve human rights’ abuses.

After touring through the United Nations’ Buildings we hopped aboard another train which took us to the city of Lausanne, the headquarters for the Olympic Games. Here we walked through the Olympic Park to view the artwork - gifts from cities who have held the games. There is a totem pole from Vancouver. 

The building behind the sculpture of a runner is where the Olympic bigwigs hold their meetings. The main museum is closed for the next two years for renovations. However, in the meantime there are some displays housed in a paddlewheel steamship tied up on the lake waterfront across from the park (photo below).

All the Olympic torches and medals from passed games are on display. In this display case, to the right are Vancouver’s torch and the torch for the upcoming London Olympic Games.

Next Blog: Montreux to Interlaken on the Golden Pass Panorama Railway.