It’s 8:30 p.m. when the dented, steel-grey carriages of the Skeena, the VIA Rail train serving the northern route from Jasper, begin their final wheezing crawl into Prince Rupert, the rainfall capital of Canada’s multi-fjorded Wet Coast. Far from a pampering Rocky Mountaineer excursion, this old-school locomotive feels like a perambulating 1950s diner, complete with a side order of cozy home-style charm.
During the hypnotic two-day trawl past endless sun-dappled forests and forbidding, shadow-locked mountains, I’ve chatted to a guard about track-kill moose, glimpsed three fur-ball bear cubs clinging to a tree and smugly eavesdropped on a local as he frightened a wide-eyed Texan tourist with tales of the unrelenting wall of rain awaiting us ahead. The smirk drops from my face when we judder into a cloud-darkened Rupert, and a tempest begins lashing the windows. It feels like we’re in a drive-through car wash. The terrified Texan layers on his waterproofs as I scramble from the train and grab the only available taxi. Fumbling to load my bag – the cabbie wisely remains glued to his seat – I’m quickly soaked to the skin. I stumble into my hotel a few minutes later, looking like a sullen, bedraggled dog smarting from its annual bath. A quick dry-off, a beer in the convivial, wood-lined bar and an early night seem the apposite response, while my eventual sleep is haunted by recurring premonitions of a soggy visit to come. But when I peel back the curtains next morning, it’s as though I’ve been transported overnight. Perched high over the harbour, I squint across golden, glassy-flat water fringed by dense, sunlit forest. Below my window, two bald eagles beadily eye a line of bobbing, brightly coloured fishing boats. Worried the rain will return and rob me of a day outside, I skip breakfast and immediately hit the streets. Rupert – no one calls it Prince Rupert here – was planned as a major colonial metropolis, but those delicate, tea-dancing expats were ill prepared for the battering coastal weather, and it was soon reduced to a gritty logging and fishing outpost. While the vintage buildings have since been reclaimed and gentrified by migrating Canucks, the city has never forgotten its edgy past. One of the preserved fire trucks at the nearby Prince Rupert Fire Museum shows just how rough this place used to be. When a boozy, 3,000-strong holiday crowd triggered a Rupert riot in 1958, the mayor mounted the city’s brand new fire truck to call for order, attracting a barrage of bricks and bottles for his troubles. The battle scars were still visible when the vehicle was retired in 1990. While there’s no sign of a rematch on my visit, I head for lunch with a group of hardy locals who might remember the event first-hand. I’ve been invited to a chowder potluck with a gaggle of retired Rupert fishermen, so I pick my way among crumbling boardwalks and mildewed old boats in the harbour’s cluttered industrial end. Congregating in a floating shed, the twinkle-eyed old-timers – who look as though they’ve just finished work in their grubby caps and plaid shirts – can’t recall the riot. But I spend an entertaining hour listening to their salty tales of Rupert’s maritime past, which evoke colourful, long-gone local characters that define pioneer eccentricity. After working off my chowder belly with an afternoon amble around Cow Bay – an elbow of bright-painted boutiques and cafés popular with tourists – I end my day back at the hotel, taking in a spectacular waterfront sunset from the bar’s crowded patio. An ideal spot to rub shoulders with chatty Ruperites and reflect on a city improbably carved from the enveloping wilderness, it’s also wisely sheltered from any sudden rainfalls. Essentials Weather Rupert’s least rainy month is June, with average temperatures soaring to a heady 15 degrees Celsius. But you’ll still need an umbrella. Can’t miss Raid the North Extreme adventure race This six-day ultra fitness challenge is for outdoor nuts who might otherwise be described as insane. Teams kayak, bike and hike over a 500-kilometre regional wilderness course, but there’s also a more manageable one-day version on June 16 for the less certifiable. far.on.ca Cool eats Cow Bay Café This unassuming local hangout has a surprisingly gourmet menu specializing in regional ingredients with a high-end twist. Bag a patio table for a languid sunset meal. Entrees from $15. 250-627-1212 Best bed Crest Hotel The Crest’s sterling waterfront views give you a good reason to get out of bed in the morning, but this business-traveller-friendly hotel is also within ambling distance of all the Rupert action. Rooms from $140. cresthotel.bc.ca One thing we need Affordable housing. Prices are rising, but three-bedroom character homes for $150,000 are still on offer here. One thing we don’t need Relentless precipitation. Tourism types call Rupert the “city of rainbows,” but no amount of spin can hide the fact that it’s the spiritual home of Gore-Tex.