“Welcome aboard our little happy boat!” greets our cheerful, silver-haired “Captain Buzz” as we step into the green pickle-shaped vessel for our tour of the Gorge in Victoria, BC.
Victoria has a collection of pickle boats (carrying a maximum of 12 passengers) that traverse the Inner Harbour and waterways. Dubbed “happy boats,” they’re run by Victoria Harbour Ferry (also known as Harbour Ferries Victoria).
We’ve picked the one offering a one-hour narrated cruise of the historic Victoria Gorge Waterway.
And with the sun shining and blue-bird skies this beautiful day, it’s impossible not to be happy on this happy boat!
Victoria Harbour Ferry route map
See where the pickle boats take you below. The yellow dotted lines show the Gorge Waterway route.
Harbour Ferries Gorge tour, Victoria
The Gorge Waterway (known simply as “the Gorge” to locals) is a narrow, tidal ocean inlet stretching four miles between Victoria’s famed Inner Harbour to Portage Inlet.
At the Tillicum Narrows section, the amount of water being forced through the narrow rocky gap (only 45 feet wide) causes whitewater rapids, waterfalls or a surging channel, depending on the height of the water.
We putter out from the dock in front of the iconic Fairmont Empress hotel. (Yes, this is the place for an oh-so-elegant high tea!)
Passing through the harbour, our Harbour Ferries Victoria tour first takes us by British Columbia’s 1897 neo-Baroque legislative building and the Clipper dock (where high-speed ferries whisk passengers to and from Seattle in under three hours).
Then we enter the Gorge, gliding slowly past working shipyards, historic homes and kayakers paddling on the water.
Early history of the Gorge Waterway
For thousands of years, the Gorge area was an important First Nations spiritual, fishing, hunting and gathering site.
The Songhees, a Victoria group of aboriginal people, called the Gorge Camossung, after a girl who is said to have been turned to stone in the tidal rapids.
We learn that they fished for salmon and herring, harvested oysters, hunted deer and ducks, and gathered plants from the surrounding forest for medicine. In 1994, an archaeological dig unearthed a 4,100-year-old midden, comprised of shells, fish bones, and different bone and stone tools used by the early First Nations people who lived here.
Point Ellice Bridge disaster
As we drift along, Buzz, who grew up in the area, also entertains us with tales of hitching rides on log booms as a child to get home and diving into the Gorge from some of the bridges we pass under, to his mom’s distress.
He tells us about the Point Ellice Bridge (now known as the Bay Street Bridge), which was the site of a terrible accident in 1896, when the midsection collapsed. A streetcar crowded with 143 men, women and children, out to celebrate Queen Victoria’s 76th birthday, crashed through the bridge, killing 55.
Buzz passes around a faded sepia-colored photo showing the aftermath of the accident.
Today, 120 years later, it’s hard to reconcile the scene of that disaster with robins singing in the shoreline trees, the kayaker who paddles by, lip-synching to opera music, and the joyful feeling of spring in the air.
Another bridge we float under on this Victoria Harbour tour – the wooden Selkirk Trestle Bridge – we recognize as part of the 34-mile-long Galloping Goose multi-use trail we bicycled along the day before.
Rival swim clubs and daredevil divers
Buzz also tells us about the rival swim clubs that operated along the Gorge in the early 1900s.
“There were floating swimming pools made from logs, and floating clubhouses. They were a big deal – people from all over would come to watch the swimmers compete.”
World champion swimmers were invited to the swim meets.
Johnny Weissmuller came as a guest athlete swimmer before becoming famous as “Tarzan.”
Duke Kahanamoku, the legendary Hawaiian surfer and Olympic gold medal swimmer, also competed – and entertained guests with his ukulele playing.
Then Buzz points out the large concrete platform which once served as the base for a 110-foot tall diving tower in the 1920s.
“Two teenage friends would dive from the tower to the amazement of spectators. Can you imagine? That’s like diving from a 10-storey building! It’s a sad story though, because one of them broke his back and died later. Three days after that, the tower was taken down.”
Tillicum Bridge and the reversing rapids
When we reach the Tillicum Bridge, we see the water swirling around underneath, but it’s not as dramatic as we imagined. Buzz explains that the rapids were once more impressive though.
“Tourists would flock to see the reversing falls. But boaters and kids who dived and jumped in at this spot often died. So one day in 1960, a man dynamited a big rock from out of the narrows here, and ever since the water flow has been less.”
This is as far as our little pickle boat goes, though the Gorge continues further. Buzz turns the boat around and we head back to the Victoria Inner Harbour, delighted we’ve seen a legendary part of Victoria we hadn’t seen before.
Map of the Gorge, Victoria
Google is always so helpful when it comes to maps :-).