After more than a week on Vancouver Island, a ferry, the Queen of Burnaby, carries us across the water, back to the mainland. This will be the northernmost point of our journey, Powell River, gateway to Desolation Sound. Once again, we are on the waters of the Salish Sea.
As the Queen approaches Powell River — a collection of houses scattered across a low-lying hillside that runs down into the water — my eyes are drawn to a large paper mill, venting steam to the north of town. We roll off the ferry, and, following our printed directions, head for our evening accommodation, the rustic Old Courthouse Inn. The miles on the odometer click down; the paper mill draws closer. I check the description of our lodging: sea view. All is well.
Three miles. We make the prescribed turn, and there it is, the Old Courthouse Inn.
From one angle, it looks absolutely enchanting. It is the other angle that is problematic.
Here I must make a brief digression: my companion in both life and travels, the fabulous Miss Mary, is renowned in her circle for selecting quality lodging through her Internet research. For years she has unerringly ferreted out the perfect lodgings when we travel. Her abilities in these matters are indisputable and uncontested. There is no one I trust more in these matters.
That is why it pains me so deeply to wonder whether she has lost her edge. Yes, there is a sea view — one can see a small sliver of water out of the upper left-hand corner of our bedroom window. The main view, however, is of the paper mill, which sits, a block away, wedged firmly between our window and the water. We have an arena-side seat on the paper production process: serenaded by the relentless rattle of paper running through the machines, mesmerized by the billowing clouds of steam rising from the stacks. When the wind shifts, there is that pungent aroma of hot pulp, a distinctive quality shared by paper mills the world over.
Don't get me wrong: the inn is lovely. But it sits one hard stone's throw from a paper mill. I am baffled by the fact that this rather important fact has not been mentioned in any of the guest reviews on tripadvisor.com. Certainly some other visitor has noticed that there is a paper mill right out the window. Shouldn't someone have entered a review along the lines of: "beautiful inn set next to endlessly enthralling example of Canadian heavy industry."
We take a walk before dinner, trying to find a path to the waterfront. The buildings surrounding the inn, many of which must be owned by the mill, stand empty. There is no one in the streets. No cars move. It is like walking through a movie set or a post-apocalyptic dream. Where are all the people? The Powell River Mill used to employ more than 2,000 workers. Now, with the advent of automation, 200 employees do the same amount of work. Large lots, criss-crossed with the fading lines of old parking spots, stand empty. Workers no longer race for their cars at the end of a shift; brown weeds push through the widening gaps in the cracked tarmac.
It would appear that some local businesses are trying to put down roots in this barren soil: there is a new brewery, and another building is undergoing renovation. Nevertheless, an old adage about pig's ears and silk purses runs continually through my mind. The Old Court House Inn might serve as an anchor business for gentrification and the creation of a historic district that would draw crowds, were it not for an inconvenient fact: there's a paper mill standing right outside the window!
Perhaps it is just me — I've been accused of lacking vision — but I am not certain heavy industry and tourism go together. The Old Courthouse Inn is lovely, the staff incredible, but...