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Gary: Prince Rupert Island

a map of Prince Rupert and Digby Island Airport
A map at the Prince Rupert/Digby Island Airport

Prince Rupert/Digby 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.

Jazz passenger plane at the unway of Digby Island airport
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.

a totem pole at a corner of the Prince Rupert/Digby Island Airport
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.

yellow school bus boarding ferry to Prince Rupert
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.

the Highlander Inn at Prince Rupert
The only tall building in Prince Rupert, the Highliner Inn, recalls the conference centers of decades past.
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.

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.

passenger sitting on a sidewalk outside a buss office, Highliner Inn, Prince Rupert
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.

left: gourmet bison at a restaurant; right: sign at a liquor store
Prince Rupert is a mythical combination of opposites. Left: Gourmet bison at Chances. Right: Sign behind a liquor store

cover of book by Bill Reid for sale at the Museum of Northern British Columbia
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 trouble.

view down 2nd Avenue in Prince Rupert
View down 2nd Ave in Prince Rupert

blue awning extending into sidewalk, front of the Highliner Inn, 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.

passengers boarding Jazz plane, Prince Rupert/Digby Island Airport

Related Articles:
Vancouver, British Columbia, Victoria, British Columbia, Western Canada by Rail, Queen Charlotte Islands

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Let Gary know what you think about his traveling adventure.

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Your tea adventures are especially interesting because I've always associated tea with British etiquette or a bevy of women wearing dainty victorian costumes and sipping tea with their little pinky sticking out. To see Tea from a man's perspective brings new light in a man's psyche. I've been among the many silent admirers of your writings for a long time here at Traveling Boy. Thanks for your very interesting perspectives about your travels. Keep it up! --- Rodger, B. of Whittier, CA, USA

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