“You should see this place at night, you look up, so many stars.” Usk ferry operator Daniel Gonu motions to the sky high above the Skeena River at the ferry’s dock, located about 16 kilometres northeast of Terrace off Hwy16. Just 26, Gonu is one of a handful of people trained to guide the small reaction ferry back and forth at the tiny community of Usk, a route that’s been operating for more than a century.
Underneath those stars, fewer than 20 people live at Usk on the north shore of the Skeena year-round. It’s an eclectic, meadowy place that begs to be explored and the people who live there permanently are nothing if not self-sufficient. During one crossing on a damp Thursday morning late last month, the cab of one passenger’s truck was filled with bags of wood pellets, a head start on winter stock. “You have to be prepared,” he said, noting he and his nearly off-grid neighbours keep multiple freezers and pantries filled with supplies.
In the summer, that population grows slightly as seasonal residents with vacation homes settle in. And Gonu says a number of tourists make the trip over the summer – last year was especially busy, he said – asking plenty of questions about the unique ferry and how it works along the way.
The reaction ferry, classified as an extension of the B.C. highway system and one of five similar vessels around the province, takes five to seven minutes to cross the river depending on the water. It’s powered by the river’s current, does not have a toll, and runs from 6:45 a.m. to 11:15 p.m. except during scheduled breaks. There’s no set schedule for crossings – riders simply pull or walk up, ring the bell, and within minutes the ferry operator is waving them on. It holds two vehicles and has a capacity of 12 people. In 2013, according to the provincial ministry of transportation, the ferry carried 16,000 passengers and 6,000 vehicles.
Gonu, who is the on-call operator, says driving the ferry is a great gig – he works for Nechako Northcoast, the company with the highway maintenance contract from the provincial ministry. Before Gonu trained to operate the ferry, he worked as a traffic flagger, but says he prefers this job.
“It’s a lot of fun running this,” he said. “The biggest thing is to watch for trees, debris … move fast and get your timing right.” The ability to multi-task is key – the ferry operators run the ferry solo, shuttling back and forth bow to stern steering and adjusting the big paddles which utilize the current and keep the vessel on course. The higher the water, the faster the trip, generally, and operators are trained to know when it’s too rough to cross.
When the ferry can’t run – and it doesn’t run when the water is too low or icy during the winter months or when it is running too high during spring run-off – there is a cable car which crosses the river, accessible by a large flight of stairs on either side. This snug aerial tram is one of two ministry operated trams in the province, the other located at the Big Bar ferry near Clinton which crosses the Fraser River.
But while the ferry and cable car might seem novel to those making a day trip to explore the north side of the Skeena, it’s not all smooth sailing for residents. An open letter published last month detailed numerous concerns from Usk residents regarding the ministry’s choice of contractor, including snow removal, road upgrades, and delays in launching the ferry this spring.
“We all live here by choice but current services have to be provided and maintained,” reads the letter, which goes on to suggest the ministry has had ample time to build a bridge to the community – a suggestion the ministry says it has no current plan to entertain.