A map at the Prince Rupert/Digby Island Airport
Island Airport: The Raven and the Jazz Plane
Story and Photos by Gary Singh
s I land at the tiny secluded airport on Digby Island off the coast
of Prince Rupert, British Columbia, several dynamics already come into
play. The geography of the area intertwines with the Tsimshian indigenous
peoples and Digby Island is supposedly the former birthplace of Txamsem,
their equivalent of the Raven.
Symbolizing wisdom and creation, the Raven appears in
various guises throughout history. Psychologist Carl Jung believed the
bird to symbolize the "shadow" archetype, that is, the darker
recesses of one's unconscious. He said encountering and learning to
accept the shadow is key to personal development. Also, the Tsimshian
often talk about how the Raven created the world and manifested order
out of chaos. I am destined to create while here.
Such are the thoughts percolating in my own unconscious
as I land. A desolate landmass, Digby Island contains only two small
villages, neither of which has vehicle access to the airport. All of
the airport employees take the ferry in from Prince Rupert.
The Jazz Plane from Vancouver
Upon arrival, I realize that actually getting to Prince
Rupert entails a crackpot sequence of events unlike any other place
on earth. It is a mythical experience to say the least. There is one
runway and no air traffic controllers. There doesn't even seem to be
a clock inside the lobby. Only a few regularly-scheduled passenger flights
arrive each day--one from Hawk Air and two from Jazz, a contract carrier
for Air Canada. An extra passenger flight lands on Saturdays. Charter
planes also use the facility for fishing expeditions.
Totem pole at the Prince
Rupert/Digby Island Airport
In the terminal, a connected row of faded plastic orange
chairs, circa 1975, sits in front of one window facing the runway. Another
row sits at the opposite window by the front entrance.
A beat-up table butts up against a post. A sign hangs
off the side of the table: "Coffee. One Dollar." A metal can--plastic
cover with a slit cut into it--sits on the table, next to a coffee machine.
I drop in a coin and pour myself a cup. There are no lids.
At the curb outside, I see two school buses, apparently
waiting for the 23 Jazz passengers, including myself, to deposit our
luggage in the back of a third vehicle, a white cargo van. People begin
to mingle about as they wait for the buses to open their doors.
There isn't much else, but the desolation is gorgeous.
A solitary totem pole stands in one corner of the airport. Two counters
exist for the two airlines. A three-foot model seaplane hangs from the
ceiling. Tourist brochures occupy a few shelves.
To kill a few minutes I wander into a side room where
a few broken fixtures are being stored. A bookshelf offers books for
free. Many are library discards. A long hallway beckons one towards
the airport administration office. A hand-painted retro poster for Alaska
Airlines graces one wall in the hallway. After twenty minutes, the PA
system beckons us to board the school buses. It is time.
The School Bus boards the ferry to Prince Rupert
I opt for the royal blue school bus instead of the yellow
school bus. It just seems more colorful. Yellow school buses bring back
too many rotten memories anyway.
From there, we travel a few miles, in the rain,
through the misty green forest and to the dock. The buses and
the cargo van then slowly lodge themselves on the ferry, which
then floats to the other side. This is the only way to get from
the airport to Prince Rupert.
The only tall building
in Prince Rupert, the Highliner Inn, recalls the conference
centers of decades past.
After 20 minutes, we arrive at land, where the
vehicles disembark and motor down the road for a mile before dumping
us at the Highliner Inn, a domineering post-brutalism-era rectangular
concrete bunker jutting up into the sky.
A dilapidated blue awning with thrice-painted-over
lettering extends out above the sidewalk, flanked by a Greyhound
bus office and a place called Cowlicks Hair Studio. I've just
stepped into what looks an archetypal lite rock album cover from
the 1970s-maybe Gordon Lightfoot or Jim Croce or something. I
can just feel the solitude, the acoustic guitar, the big moustache
and lyrics about life on the road.
The bus from the ferry deposits one into a 1970s
lite rock album cover.
Although Prince Rupert is a colorful hamlet
on the water, a popular cruise port and a tourist draw with interesting
shops and several amiable restaurants, components of the town haven't
evolved for decades. Fine seafood eateries comfortably subsist right
alongside rundown façades and empty buildings. It's wonderful.
Prince Rupert is a mythical combination of opposites.
Left: Gourmet bison at Chances. Right: Sign behind a liquor store
Essential writings by the legendary sculptor,
carver, jeweler, printmaker and poet Bill Reid, on sale at the
Museum of Northern BC
Even better, indigenous Tsimshian imagery
permeates everything. The Museum of Northern British Columbia features
many displays, artifacts and treasures, all located in a Northwest Coast-style
First Nations longhouse. The selection of books in the gift shop is
almost worth the price of admission alone. Several volumes concerning
Pacific Northwest Coast Art, including the writings of the iconic Bill
Reid, highlight the collection.
After a short weekend in Prince Rupert,
I find myself departing the landscape long before really having a proper
chance to take in the necessary sights. I would like to remain longer,
perhaps for a few months, but the shadow side of my unconscious tells
me if I go AWOL from the Jazz turbo propeller plane, I will be in serious
View down 2nd Ave in Prince Rupert
This is the first building one sees upon arriving
at Prince Rupert, and the last building one sees before departing.
So I wheel my luggage down the sidewalk
and join several travelers in front of the Highliner Inn at 8am on Sunday.
A few of them decide to grab some breakfast inside the restaurant while
leaving their bags in the corner by the Greyhound office. Others merely
wait outside with cups of coffee from a nearby Tim Horton's. Other than
us, the streets are completely empty.
The cargo van rolls up and we deposit our luggage. For
us passengers, this time it's a white school bus. I guess the blue and
yellow ones aren't available on Sundays.
In the end, I return yet again to the isolated loneliness
of the Prince Rupert/Digby Island Airport. Before boarding the Jazz
plane to Vancouver,
I peruse the free book collection in the room where the broken fixtures
are stored. In what can only be described as a synchronicity of the
highest order, a paperback copy of The Manticore by Robertson Davies
catches my eye immediately and I snatch it up. In the book, the protagonist
visits a Jungian analyst and learns how to deal with the shadow side
of his psyche. What a finish. As the Jazz plane leaves the runway, this
solo traveler feels guided by the Raven itself.
British Columbia, Victoria,
British Columbia, Western
Canada by Rail, Queen