by Margo Malcolm
Rushing on your way to Long Beach or lazing on the beaches of Parksville/Qualicum Beach, you might easily miss a visit to the town of Port Alberni. But that would be a mistake. This town is shrugging off the economic highs and lows it’s had over the years due to the changing fortunes of the logging industry, and is looking to a bold tourism-related future by reclaiming its past.
The town is representative of Vancouver Island’s modern history. Situated close to the island’s sheltered east coast beaches, it is really a west coast deep sea port located on the Alberni Inlet that stretches 40 km east to the open waters at Ucluelet.
Surrounded by wilderness recreational area and spectacular natural scenery, Port Alberni also offers fascinating heritage and cultural attractions for visitors who take the time to stop. However the crowning jewel in their tourism offering can be relived at the McLean Mill National Historic Site, the only remaining steam-driven sawmill still operational in Canada. Train enthusiasts will be enthralled at the prospect of being able to hop aboard the Alberni Pacific Railway steam train for the 35 minute ride from Port Alberni to the mill.
Steam Train Thrills
Old train buffs will also be interested in the 2-Spot, a 1912 Shay logging locomotive and a 1928 Westminster Iron Works ‘Buda’ Lima 42 ton 2-truck Shay (a gas powered switching engine), currently being restored by the Western Vancouver Island Industrial Heritage Society.
Step into the Past
Troubadours roam the McLean Mill site bringing the Mill’s and Port Alberni’s long logging and sawmilling history to life. Close your eyes and the smell of freshly cut timber being hewn in a steam-driven mill will take you back to the early life-blood industry of Vancouver Island. The vibrant actors/musicians guide you through the mill as if you were just starting work there, touring the logging/sawmill camp buildings.
Designated a National Historic Site in 1989, the mill currently cuts wood for demonstrations and for sales. A restoration of the original lumber camp and sawmill which R.B. McLean and his three sons ran from 1926 to 1965, the site is typical of Vancouver Island sawmills in use during the 20th century.
Children will enjoy collecting stamps on the Stamp Tour, and being rewarded when completing the collection. Loggers and historic equipment enthusiasts will be fascinated by the restored logging equipment, which include a steam donkey, grader, A-frame (log dump), lumber carriers and logging trucks.
Wander the site visiting the logger’s bunkhouse, the cookhouse and the blacksmith shop, or see the mill’s troupe, the Tin Pants Theatre Company, performing stage shows in the Nikkei Theatre. If you get hungry or thirsty during your visit, an onsite café, Steam Pot Café, offers light lunches and snacks. Along with the usual souvenirs, the Mill Store gift shop also offers local art, classic and retro children’s toys, books, clothing, and the ever popular Alberni Pacific Railway’s engineer cap.
Wine lovers will be forgiven for hopping off the train along the way to or from the mill for a sip at the Chase and Warren Estate Winery. Just request the stop when you purchase your ticket at the 1912 CPR Station in Port Alberni. You can then proceed to the mill later by train, or the winery will provide transportation to the mill or back to town for a small fee if the train schedule doesn’t work out for you.
There is nothing quite like sipping wine at a local vineyard where the grapes are grown and the wine is made on site. While you take in the dramatic views of the surrounding mountains, sample the winery’s Pinot and German varietals.
Alberni Valley Adventure – trees, trails and fishing tales
Port Alberni’s unique location at the end of the Alberni Inlet, or the Alberni Canal as locals call it, makes it a world-renowned place for salmon and halibut fishing. Also out on the canal, the MV Lady Rose or MV Frances Barkley can take you on an unforgettable 40 kilometer journey to Bamfield or Ucluelet with some of the most incredible scenery and wildlife viewing in the world.
Sproat Lake is also a popular place for fishing, waterskiing, and windsurfing, but be careful you don’t get swallowed up by the huge Martin Mars water bombers, the largest in the world, that reside in the lake and can scoop up 27,276 litres (7,200 US gallons) of water to douse forest fires. These flying tankers have been fighting fires for over forty years in BC.
Outdoor adventurers can find enough in the Alberni Valley to keep them busy for days. The Log Train Trail is excellent for hikers and mountain bikers; Mount Arrowsmith offers hiking and rock climbing; Stamp River Provincial Park is a great for swimming or tubing; at Sproat Lake Provincial Park there are campgrounds and a boat launch; and Cathedral Grove is home to the ancient old-growth giant Douglas fir trees.
About the author:
This week Traveling Tales welcomes Margo Malcolm, a professional freelance writer and communications consultant living in Victoria, B.C.
Photos courtesy of McLean “Steam” Sawmaill:
:1: All aboard! The train prepares to leave the station.
2: An operator demonstrates how lumber is cut from raw logs.
3: The troupe of the Tin Pants Theatre Company with a vintage Hayes logging truck.
If you go:
McLean Steam Sawmill
Phone Number: 250-723-1376
Alberni Valley Heritage Network (including Alberni Pacific Railway)
Alberni Valley Chamber of Commerce
Phone Number: 250-724-6535
The Hospitality Inn offers special packages with tickets to the McLean Mill and the Alberni Pacific Railway
Reservations: toll-free 1-877-723-8111
McLean Mill Package: www.hospitalityinnportalberni.com/pkg_mcleans.htm
Batstar Adventure Tours offers guided bike tours in partnership with McLean Mill and Alberni Pacific Railway
Phone toll-free 1-877-449-1230