I feel like I’m committing adultery. My palms are sweaty. I feel palpitations in my heart. I cast furtive glances over my shoulder. Any minute now my beloved spouse of six years will scoop me up and put me back where I belong.
In the ferry lineup to my beloved Bowen Island.
I live on an Island accessible only by ferry from Horseshoe Bay in West Vancouver, British Columbia. About once or twice a week, I venture off the island and onto the mainland for some light shopping and to visit the odd friend who stayed behind when I moved to the island six years ago. At the end of my stay on the mainland, I drive back to Horseshoe Bay and enter a ferry terminal that services three destinations—my own Bowen Island with its little, friendly ferry, the communities of Gibson and Sechelt on the Sunshine Coast with a bigger ferry, and Nanaimo on Vancouver Island with a really big ferry.
So when I barrel down the approach to the ferry ticket booths, I instinctively swing to the far right where is located the one, lone ticket booth that services Bowen Island. At the very last moment, I realize that this morning my destination lies somewhere in the middle of all those booths that cater to the people who take big ferries to destinations so far flung that gift shops are needed to keep them out of trouble.
The two big ferries are the ones that get the really long lineups—sometimes stretching far and away up the highway. Cars are packed full on hot summer weekends with sweaty dads and placating mums, howling dogs and querulous kids.
Normally, we Bowen Island folk drive smugly past the fuming lines of cars and are directed by young people in orange vests to our own little lane far, far away from the unseemly hubbub.
But today I am forsaking Lane 8 and heading directly for the neon red sign above Lane 4. Langdale—the ferry “up the coast.” In this part of the world, we have a ferry that takes us not to an island but to another chunk of the mainland. It’s a bit weird.
At the booth, I proffer my BC Ferry Experience card that gets me a discounted rate on all ferries and receive my first shock of the morning. The big ferry costs more—a lot more—than the little ferry. And that’s saying something.
The nice ferry worker sucks dry my Experience card so that on my next trip I will need to reload it and then directs my friends and me to a lane in the upper holding area. We have a view of the ocean and the mountains. After six years of huddling inside my car amid a sea of dank, dark puddles and grey girders in the holding area for the Bowen ferry, the view from up top is a revelation. I cheer up as we clamber out of the car and feel the wind whip our hair into a fresh and salty frenzy. So this is how the big ferry people spend their waiting time.
I feel the first stirrings of envy.
We stroll across a bridge spanning the hurly burly of traffic below—another bit of luxury not afforded the Bowenfolk. We must hover at the edge of the expressway lanes leading onto the big ferries and wait while the trucks and cars whoosh past. I always experience just a hint of vertigo as I wait. One lurch forward and it’s curtains. I’ll be squashed flat by a carful of tourists speeding towards a White Spot Monty Mushroom hamburger and a special play area just for the kids.
We take a turn around Horseshoe Bay and then scramble back up the escalator and across the metal bridge to the car. The ferry loading feels very grand. We progress in stately fashion across wide lanes high above the water into an impossibly cavernous space. Dark, forbidding, crowded. I feel claustrophobic. Trapped. I have to get out! I fling open my door and tumble into the path of an oncoming car—its lights blazing, tires crunching. I catch a glimpse of a determined face and white knuckles clutching a steering wheel before I plaster myself flat against the side of my car.
These big ferries are dangerous.
Before we leave the car deck, we take the precaution of checking what animal has been designated our spirit guide. I have been on the big ferries before. I know how it works. I know what it feels like to forget where you left the car and have to clamber from level to level, the panic level rising until you finally present yourself to one of the traffic guys in tears, blubbering about a lost car. They sigh and you know they are thinking how wonderful it would be if just once they could finish a shift without needing to help some poor slub find their car.
But I’m wiser now. I know about the spirit guides. Passengers are supposed to take note of the coastal animal painted on the exit closest to their car so they will know where to descend when the ferry docks.
“We’re starfish!” I exclaim proudly to my companions. Perhaps they don’t know about the spirit guide system and will be forever grateful for my penetrating perspicuity.
They aren’t impressed. I guess they’ve also committed ferry adultery.
We clatter upstairs with the rest of the hundreds of passengers and emerge into a whole new world of spaciousness and amenities. On the little Bowen Island ferry, we have seats, a few vending machines, and a snack bar staffed by friendly people who make you brown buttered toast and deliver it right to your table.
On the Big Ferry, a whole panoply of options awaits us. We make a quick circuit, wide-eyed with awe at the abundance. We pass two food outlets, endless racks of brochures advertising the delights of various Sunshine Coast destinations, acres of seats, little cubicles for people who can’t stop working on their computers for the 40 minute voyage, and, best of all, a gift shop.
I LOVE the gift shops on the big ferries. I am also very grateful that my little ferry does not have a gift shop. Otherwise, I would be broke. Flat.
Ferry gift shops manage to balance on the razor’s edge of taste. The usual tourist dross overflows the shelves as does the typical range of magazines, crossword puzzle books, and chocolate bars. But supplementing the expected is the unexpected. I veer towards a wall full of Thai silk scarfs in gorgeous jewel colors, stylish windbreakers with discreet logos, racks of earrings dripping with chunks of iridescent shell.
Talk about dangerous.
I succumb to a Thai silk scarf (well, honestly, it is absolutely stunning) and at the till can’t resist Hello Magazine’s Royal Wedding souvenir edition. I defy anyone to resist those adorable young people, not to mention the hats.
Armed with my purchases, I retire to a window seat to watch Bowen Island slide past. With nose pressed to the glass, I squint to get a glimpse of my house. We live on the west side of Bowen Island—the side overlooking the waterway we are now sailing. By rights I should be able to see at least the general location of my neighborhood. But no. The view is soon obstructed by Keats Island and moments later we’re directed to return to our cars.
The familiar ferry anxiety surfaces, but with more force than I am accustomed to. We must get down to the car. Now! What if we’re late and the ferry starts to unload without us? What dreadful fate will befall us if we fail to press the accelerator on time and in time? It doesn’t bear thinking about.
We hustle towards the door. No! That’s an orca. And look, the next door is a seal. Where’s the starfish? What happened? Was I wrong? Are we really orcas?
My companions steer me across the boat to the other side. We find a doorway sporting a giant black crab. Jagged claws reach out to ensnare me. I feel the pit of my stomach constrict. My breath starts coming in short, sharp gasps.
Just when I’m sure that we’re doomed to wander the upper decks of the Langdale ferry until found by a disgruntled ferry worker, the starfish floats into view and I almost weep with relief. Now all we need to remember is which direction to go in when we get down the stairs. Heart pounding, palms sweaty again. Riding these big ferries is stressful.
But all the anxiety pays off when finally we careen off the upper level and into a whole new world. Instead of our friendly little Snug Cove on Bowen, we see a highway of speeding cars. It’s like we have never left the mainland.
Oh right. We haven’t left the mainland. We just jumped over a sound.
I have gotten away with ferry adultery but the victory doesn’t feel as sweet as I thought. Instead, I just feel a little bit cheap with my new Thai silk scarf and my Royal Wedding souvenir edition of Hello Magazine. So easily seduced, so quickly to forget the simple pleasures of a voyage on Bowen’s Queen of Capilano. I should feel ashamed.
But I don’t really. Instead, I press my foot down hard on the accelerator and zoom forward into a Sunshine Coast adventure.